What Is Section 504?
Over the past several years, educators have focused much effort on the role of classroom accommodations in addressing the special needs of students with attentional difficulties. Concerned parents were instrumental in getting the U.S. Department of Education to issue a joint policy memorandum clarifying that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and anti-discrimination law, obliges public schools to provide accommodations to students with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) (U.S. Department of education, 1991) even if they do not qualify for special services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (DEA).
Although both 504 and IDEA legislation address students with attention, learning, and other difficulties, 504 has become the more global vehicle for accommodating children with unique needs, including ADHD or other health impairments. In contrast, IDEA is based on well-defined criteria that include a statistical discrepancy between aptitude and achievement, and require a Child Study Team to determine eligibility before developing an individualized education program (IEP). Thus, the joint policy memorandum using Section 504 has become pivotal in providing classroom supports to students who are not otherwise eligible for special education services under IDEA.
"Teachers Tips" Form a Framework for Developing Classroom Adjustments
As a trainer of teachers, I have conducted more than 100 workshops on classroom accommodations to meet the special needs of students with attention and learning differences. As part of these workshops, teachers share strategies they use to help students with ADHD feel more successful in school. The teachers generally form small groups and write down their favorite strategy on an index card, to be later compiled and presented to the large group. The "Teacher Tips" presented in this article are the compilation of the hundreds of strategies teachers have so generously and enthusiastically shared during these workshops. By simple processes of sorting, counting, and grouping, three categories of classroom accommodations emerged as distinctive: physical, instructional, and behavioral (see Figure 1).
A Three-Step Process for Creating a Classroom Accommodation Plan
Step 1. Parent and Student Education, Collaboration, and Agreement
As an educational therapist, I begin to develop an accommodation plan by discussing options with parents and the student. I explain to both the parents and student the role of classroom modifications in creating positive school and learning experiences. I find that students as young as 5 years old can participate in conversations about "making school easier."
To start the process, I often use a compiled list of strategies providing examples of possible classroom adjustments (see Figure 1). The goal of this initial collaboration is to present a framework and process for developing a personalized accommodation plan. Specifically, I first meet with parents, then with the student, with two goals in mind:
To educate them about the relationship of classroom accommodations to positive academic and social outcomes.
To help them choose adjustments that they believe will help classroom performance.
With students of all ages, I use a variety of hands-on activities such as comic strips, webs, letters, poems, posters, charts and before-and-after drawings. I start with a blank piece of drawing paper entitled "What my teacher can do to help me learn" and ask the student to draw something that might help him or her in the classroom (see Figures 2 and 3).
After this activity, the student then lists the classroom accommodations that may be helpful, on the first draft of a "Certificate of Accommodations" (see Figure 4). This activity provides a quick and easy tool to initiate the classroom accommodation planning process with the student. Having the student fill in the certificate encourages him or her to think carefully about which adjustments seem most important, and promotes a sense of student entitlement to learning accommodations. Teachers can also use this form as a springboard for dialogue with the student about making school and learning easier through the use of classroom accommodations.
Later on in the process, once the family has obtained official endorsement from teachers and other school personnel, a revised Certificate is signed by student, parent, teachers, and principal. The student then keeps the Certificate handy in his or her book bag, to be used as a reminder if needed (e.g., during a test when a request for extra time might be appropriate). Students are encouraged to place the certificate under a plastic sheet protector, in a colored folder in their book bag.
In sum, student and parent participation in selecting classroom accommodations via a directed activity both fosters an understanding of strategies, and facilitates responsibility for goal setting, learning, and academic success. Moreover, collaborative planning becomes a problem-solving process that initiates the development of self-advocacy skills, so necessary for students with special needs.
Step 2. Teacher Input/Agreement
The second step in the accommodation planning process is to develop a more formal written compilation of classroom accommodations, to be agreed on by the teachers) and related school personnel. During this step, teachers offer input regarding what accommodations are currently working for the student, as well as what trouble spots persist.
Their input results in a more systematic and comprehensive written list of 504 accommodations. This list includes a rating scale to assist in ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of the particular accommodations chosen. Space for ongoing teacher comments allows teachers to continue to reflect on possible improvements to the plan (see Figure 5, page 32).
The ratings and teacher comments should be reviewed periodically. Eventually, a revised list of the most effective accommodations should be rewritten on an "Annual Classroom Accommodation Review" form, with the rating scale deleted (see Figure 5).
Step 3. Parent Training for 504 Follow-up, Coordination, and Advocacy
Step 3 culminates the accommodation planning process by guiding the parent to formally send the collaborative list of classroom adjustments and rating scale, with a cover letter, to the appropriate school personnel (principal, pupil assistance committee, 504 coordinator, counselor, special educators, and teachers). A parent cover letter and copy of the U.S. Department of Education 1991 "Clarification Policy" should accompany the accommodation list so that educators have an explanation for the formal request for a "504 Classroom Accommodation Plan." This letter is also useful as a parent-teacher communication tool. Figure 6, page 32, shows a checklist of items to be included with the letter.
The parent cover letter makes reference to the student's eligibility for accommodations and attempts to seek formal endorsement of the collaborative accommodation process. Teachers are then asked for their input by filling out the rating scale and returning it to the parent, counselor, or 504 coordinator in a self-addressed, stamped envelope (see Figure 7).
Step 3 is complete when a written consensus of "priority" accommodations is recompiled for inclusion in the student's permanent confidential counselor file. This may be accomplished by using a recompiled Classroom Accommodation Rating Scale as an annual review form (see Figure 5). This revised accommodation list should be made available to all current and future teachers by the counselor, principal, or 504 coordinator. When each teacher documents effective classroom strategies for the student's permanent file, accountability for transition and continuity of accommodations with future teachers may be facilitated. In this way, students with ADHD will not have to start from square one with each new school year.
Ultimately, the provision of classroom adjustments is in the hands of the teacher. Thus, educators must examine their own values and beliefs regarding diversity and the rights that students with attentional difficulties have to equalize their chances for success in school. Further, if significant change is to be made in the classroom for students with ADHD, teachers will require comprehensive inservice training and peer collaboration to update their knowledge and application of effective classroom techniques. Such training should employ data-based evaluation systems to document evidence of those interventions that have worked, can be replicated by other teachers, and can be pivotal for a positive transition to the next grade.
In sum, the suggestions in this article will be most successfully administered by the teamwork of educators, students, and parents who collaboratively develop an understanding that educators must systematically provide classroom adjustments to "level the playing field" for students with ADHD (see Figure 8).
I thank the many teachers, parents, and students who collaborated with me to develop the framework and processes in this article. TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 28-33.
Bonita Blazer, Learning/Reading/Attention Specialist, and Director, New Jersey Certified Independent Child Study Team, Moorestown, New Jersey.
Address correspondence to Bonita Blazer, 302 N. Washington St., Suite 202, Moorestown, NJ 08057.…