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What Is an IEP/504 Plan and How Will It Help My Teen?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Academic issues often go hand in hand with behavioral problems.

Studies show that teens with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), alcohol/substance use disorder (ADU/SUD), or other mental health issues often have trouble in school. They may have a hard time sitting still or paying attention during class. Some might not be able to focus on the teacher or remember material as well as their peers. Others may get distracted easily and have a hard time completing homework. And others might act out and get into conflicts with classmates and school administration.

All these issues can result in poor attendance, failing grades, and sometimes suspension or expulsion. Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety can cause straight-A students to fall behind in school.

That’s why parents of teens with acute emotional or behavioral issues often advocate for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP, sometimes referred to as an IEP Plan, is a legal document that states the specialized academic goals the school has for the student that year and what learning accommodations they will provide to help the student achieve those goals.

An IEP is similar to a 504 Plan, which you may have heard of. However, there are differences in the eligibility criteria for IEPs and 504s.

Who is eligible for an IEP?

All students enrolled in U.S. public schools are eligible to apply for an IEP. To meet IEP criteria, teens need to be diagnosed with specific learning differences (such as autism) or acute mental health issues (in legalese, “emotional disturbances”) that are severe enough to cause major impairment. There are also other situations that could make teens eligible for an IEP, such as having a traumatic brain injury. The full list of disabilities that make a teen eligible for special education under an IEP can be found here.

What’s the difference between an IEP and a 504?

You may wonder what the difference is between an IEP and a 504 Plan. An IEP is a formal, legal document overseen by the state. A 504 Plan, which received its name from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, is not as formal. It’s a more flexible statement covering services that can be given on an as-needed basis to students with disabilities. For example, if a student breaks their arm and cannot write or type, a 504 might give them the opportunity to take their tests orally. A teen with ADHD might be given a different seat in the classroom, more time on tests, or the ability to move around the classroom when needed.

IEPs can also offer these modifications, but in general they’re more comprehensive and provide more services that a 504 cannot. A student with an IEP, for example, might move from the general education, mainstream classroom into one in which all the students have IEPs. Students with a 504 Plan cannot receive special education classes. For high school students, an IEP also discusses a transition plan for post-graduation, which a 504 does not. IEPs are also operative for an entire year, whereas many 504s are operative for a specific period of time and must be either updated or renewed if the student needs ongoing support.

The main difference between an IEP and 504, though, is eligibility. The criteria for special education under an IEP is much stricter than the criteria to receive accommodations under a 504. If a teen’s mental health or behavioral issues are not severe enough to warrant an IEP, typically the school will offer a 504 Plan. Both programs, though, have the same goal: to give teens with disabilities, learning differences, or mental health issues equal opportunities to learn and succeed academically.

Benefits of an IEP

Having an IEP or 504 Plan can significantly improve your child’s school experience. Both programs offer educational accommodations that can make it easier for your child to learn, retain material, and demonstrate their knowledge.

Accommodations may include:

  • Preferential seating in the classroom
  • Getting outlines of lessons
  • Having assignments divided into smaller tasks
  • More frequent repetition of material
  • One-on-one attention from instructors
  • Modifications to homework
  • Modifications to exams (extended time, separate room, oral responses, etc.)

All these accommodations can contribute to academic success and help a student get the most out of their time in school.

However, there may also be disadvantages in getting an IEP.

For one, teens might feel embarrassed about getting singled out for additional resources. This is true not just regarding academics, but also when it comes to psychotherapy. Although there is absolutely no reason at all to feel ashamed about mental health issues or learning differences, teens are not always kind to their peers. Unfortunately, stigma still exists when it comes to mental health issues. Bullies often target students with IEPs. This can have a negative impact on a teen’s self-image, self-esteem, and emotional wellbeing – though there are ways to cope if your teen has become a target of bullying.

Additionally, each child is different when it comes to their educational needs. While some teens may thrive with a modified academic curriculum and additional resources, others may internalize a sense of learned helplessness and continue to fall behind in school. Teachers and parents might lower their expectations for students with an IEP. This can either help or harm your teen, depending on their specific needs and personality.

Only parents can make the decision as to whether the benefits of getting an IEP outweighs the potential social, emotional, or academic risks.

The IEP Process

To secure an IEP for your child, there are several steps to take. The first step is to formally request the IEP in writing. Once a parent requests an IEP, the school has a legal obligation to conduct a clinical evaluation of the student in question within 60 days of the request. This evaluation allows the school to determine whether the student is legally eligible for the IEP.

After the school establishes that the teen does indeed have a mental health/emotional disorder that causes “major impairment” in learning, they schedule a meeting to discuss the special accommodations available to the student. The IEP meeting should be attended by parents, school counselors, school administrators, and any other school advocates parents wish to bring along. The student can also join if desired. This meeting is formal, and the law requires schools to give advance notice of meeting date, time, and place. The goal of the meeting is to present the specialized academic objectives for that year and accommodations that will be given to the student to meet those objectives.

After the parents consent to all aspects of the IEP, the student can receive special education services immediately. School administrators have a legal obligation to measure the progress of the student. Federal law also requires schools to report progress to parents on a regular basis. If the school does not adhere to the IEP, they can face legal consequences.

The IEP is reviewed annually, or earlier if parents/teachers request a review. To renew an IEP, the student must receive a clinical evaluation every three years.

Should I Get My Child an IEP?

If you’re uncertain about seeking an IEP for your child, it’s important to understand that it’s better to start the process sooner rather than later. The process to procure an IEP can take weeks or months. Many parents feel the process is unnecessarily protracted. Some parents utilize the help of the school counselor or an educational consultant to help them secure an IEP. Counselors and consultants know the system and can help cut through the procedural red tape.

All parents, though, can request a copy of a “parent rights” document or booklet from their school district. These outline the ways in which schools are legally bound to support children with specific needs. Parents who know the extent of their legal rights put themselves in the best position to advocate for their children.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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