In January, I had the privilege of having a chat with Shaye Downey, MS.ed, a school advocate and founder of Elite Education Consulting about the topic of:

How to get started when you have a child with ADHD who is struggling in school

It was an exciting conversation, and one that generated a lot of discussion.

Erin Snyders (ES): Today Shaye and I thought we would start at the beginning with the question of what to do when your child with ADHD is struggling – either behaviorally or academically – at school. Questions like: Where do I start? I don’t have anything in place yet, what do I do to start the process? What are my rights? What is the process I need to follow? 

That’s what we’re going to talk about today and I’m excited to get started with you, Shaye!

Shaye Downey (SD): One of the things I’d like to start with and clarify, is that a lot of times I receive questions about both 504s and IEPs.  Those can be very confusing topics when mixed together. Although 504s and IEPs are similar, they are also very different and they are two separate topics for us to cover at different times because it’s really too much to get into without some background information. Today I really just like to start with: “My child has ADHD and (s)he’s struggling at school. The teacher calls me everyday, or says she can’t focus or they’re constantly on “yellow” and “red,” the behavior charts are coming home, or they’re a high school student and they’re failing because they can’t remember to turn in work.”

What do you do? 

Let’s assume for the sake of today’s topic that your child does not have a 504 plan. 

I’ll tell you what a 504 is and where it came about. There’s a law – specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974. It was put into place for all situations – situations beyond just schools – and protects people with disabilities. So just imagine if your child was in a wheelchair, you would expect there to be a ramp for them to access school, correct? The law that requires such access is exactly the same law that protects your child with ADHD in the school setting. 

ADHD is a qualifying disability under section 504. It’s really important that you know that. Being diagnosed with ADHD, your child has a qualifying disability (as that term is used in the law) — period.

That means your child is entitled to whatever accommodations they may need to access education. Period. That’s as simple as it gets. 

School administrators do not get to decide whether your child is entitled. If your child with ADHD is struggling in school, it is the law that they are provided accommodations. 

Behavior is an important component to learning in the classroom. So, if your child is struggling behaviorally, but not academically at the moment there still must be a plan put into place that documents the behavior as a manifestation of the disability of ADHD. That’s really important to know. For example, is your child impulsive – do they speak out or blurt in class? That is definitely a hallmark manifestation of ADHD, no question about it. Simply put, if your child’s behavior is a “manifestation of their disability” – meaning caused by their ADHD, then your child is entitled to an accommodation. 

An accommodation is simply a strategy to help that student continue to access their education, feel confident, feel safe, feel comfortable to be in that learning environment. 

The same applies if your child with ADHD is struggling in school academically. Let’s say your child takes twice as long on an assignment as another student because – due to their ADHD – they have a difficult time focusing or they need to get up and move around the classroom more often than their peers. They are entitled to accommodations to assist them with those needs. 

Accommodations can be as creative and out of the box as they need to be to help the student access their education. 

I like to say accommodations level the playing field for kids with ADHD who are struggling in school. That is their right as, as a student and as a person with a disability. 

So what do you do when your child with ADHD is struggling in school?  {You can grab a freebie from Shaye called ADHD and the 504 Plan Formula here.} 

→ First, you must contact your school and determine who is responsible for 504 Plans – all schools must have a person assigned to this role. They may be called a 504 Coordinator, an Equity Coordinator, or some other name. You have a right to ask who that person is. 

→ Second, you send a letter to the 504 coordinator, the principal, guidance counselor, and the teacher. You include the fact that your child has been diagnosed with ADHD and that you would like to discuss putting a 504 plan into place. That’s all you have to say. You do not have to get any details about your child’s specific struggles that letter. 

→ Next, the school must respond to you within a “reasonable” time frame. That’s an unclear time frame so when I work with my clients, I generally request a meeting within 10 business days in my original letter. If I don’t start getting some action and response from the school within that time frame, I encourage clients to start pushing – follow up, and follow up again. State that time is of the essence – my student is struggling, the sooner we can get accommodations in place, the quicker he / she will be able to fully access their education as they are entitled. 

Usually, if you approach the school with the right format, with a kind, assertive, and confident demeanor, you’ll get an appropriate response. That’s where you start.

{Remember to grab Shaye’s free ebook report called the ADHD and the 504 Plan Formula here. It includes templates for the letter to write to the school.} 

ES: Thank you, Shaye! have a couple of quick follow up questions for you! So, as you told us, a person who has ADHD qualifies as having a disability. However, if that child is doing fabulously at school – both behaviorally and academically – meaning they have great grades and great behavior, then there’s no need for a 504 plan, right?

SD: That’s correct.

ES: What if my kid with ADHD is doing okay in school, but I know based on their IQ and their potential that if their ADHD weren’t a factor, they could be doing so much better. They’re skating by, but I know that they could be excelling if they had a few accommodations to help them out. (I’m assuming that’s a big conversation for another day.)

SD: Yes, we can get into this further in another conversation, but I can give you a general comment on it here. You’re right –  a lot of schools will respond to parents that a child with ADHD is “doing okay”.

First, the 504 law is very general in this regard. It does not use the words “full potential,” but I generally encourage parents to push for that. We require public property to have accommodating items for people with disabilities so that they can experience that property (e.g., school, playground, etc.) to their full potential.

So if your child is doing okay, I would ask why your child is performing just okay. What is it that’s preventing them from doing amazing – from reaching their full potential? Is it because of a manifestation of their ADHD? Perhaps they are getting a B because they don’t answer the last questions on a test – they can’t finish in time. If their ADHD is causing them to become distracted or work more slowly than they would without ADHD, they would be entitled to an accommodation of more time. 

Perhaps they are not performing as well as they could because they are having organization issues – a common ADHD symptom. Perhaps they could perform better if they had an accommodation of a graphic organizer. They deserve that too. 

ES: What about the parents who really struggle with that word “disability” and really don’t want to see ADHD as a disability. What’s your reaction to that?

SD: I understand! That’s my first reaction. It took me a long time to wrap my head around the fact that my child had epilepsy. That’s a disability that he will have forever. Then it was secondary that we found out he had ADHD. So that’s my first reaction, I completely understand. 

But what I can tell you – and just this is me not just being teacher, but just being human and saying to you that the more open you are to understanding your child and understanding what is going on the better off your child will be in the long run. 

ES: I agree that this is a hard topic for parents. When I work with clients – especially in the Transformational ADHD Parenting Program, I really arm them with scientific information about what ADHD is from a brain-science perspective. Some parents get comfortable with the “disability” label and others don’t embrace it. As long as parents understand the brain science – it doesn’t really matter in the long run. 

But, from a legal perspective – when working with law – all parents need to know is that an ADHD diagnosis does indeed fit the legal definition of a “qualifying disability”. Our feelings about it don’t really matter – the law says ADHD is a qualifying disability. So it’s not important or helpful – in this context – to get hung up or triggered on that word. 

SD: Yes, exactly. You know, a lot of parents I counsel say things like, “I don’t want my child labeled. I don’t want them to have a label.” And my response to that is if your child is struggling in school – especially with behavior – they already have a label. And that label is one that’s being assigned by adults and children alike who don’t understand that your child has a legitimate diagnosis. We might as well address the behaviors in the appropriate way so that we can make sure your child isn’t having to carry a negative label / reputation with them for the rest of their life. We don’t want them believing there is something wrong with them; that they aren’t capable or that they’re dumb. 

ES: I absolutely agree. If you’re going to be your child’s advocate, you have to really understand what’s going on with ADHD. 

So, I know in this conversation we aren’t wanting to get into IEP’s, but can you give us a short answer about when a 504 would not be “enough” for a child? Or do you always start with the letter and the request to discuss a 504? Are there times you ask for something more than a 504 off the bat?

SD: Yeah. So let’s talk about the difference because that helps a lot. There’s a million things on the web where you can read and learn about the difference between a 504 or an IEP, but I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

A 504 plan is relatively easy to put into place. When I was a 504 coordinator I have received a letter request on a Monday and had an effective plan in place by Wednesday. It shouldn’t take long. There’s no evaluation process that happens. Just documentation from a physician that your child has a disability (and some schools aren’t even requiring this anymore – they are simply requiring a documented “need”). A 504 documents what accommodations are required – frequent breaks, longer time, etc. 

An IEP on the other hand – which is handled under another area of the law called the IDEA – requires significant amounts of psychoeducational evaluation and involves a larger team of school administration. An IEP, however, will be more detailed, and it will require that your child receive specialized education / instruction about how to utilize accommodations or manage their disability symptoms. It likely requires special instruction outside of the regular curriculum – whether that instruction is academic, behavioral or emotional. It includes written goals, strategies and specialized services and instruction. 

Generally I encourage parents of children with ADHD who are struggling in school to begin with a 504 – even if they believe an IEP will ultimately be required. I say that because 504’s should be relatively fast. And I believe that children getting any kind of accommodation as quickly as possible is better than getting no accommodations. 

The 504 and the IEP are governed by two different laws. One does not affect the other. And then there’s the question, if I have an IEP, do I give up my 504? Yes and no. 504 is not needed once you have an IEP because all of those accommodations that are in that 504 should be rolled into the IEP. Imagine that you take the 504 and plug it into that IEP. It’s just paperwork. That’s it. All of those still accommodations go into that IEP.

When talking with educators, be sure that you are always referring back to your child’s needs. That’s very important. It’s not what you want, but what the child with ADHD needs to stop struggling in school.

And, finally my number one tip is – don’t wait. If your child with ADHD is struggling in school, don’t wait. If the school tries to encourage you to wait and “see how things go” push back. If what the school is doing right now is not working, it is likely it won’t begin to work in the future. There’s no need to wait. Don’t wait.

ES: Shaye, I am taking away a few takeaways from this conversation. We asked you at the beginning, my child ADHD is struggling in school – academically or behaviorally – where do I start? What I picked up from this is: 

  • First, ask who the 504 coordinator is, figure that out. There should be one. They may have multiple titles. 
  • Second, send a letter that your child has been diagnosed with ADHD (a disability) and you want to discuss getting a 504 plan in place and implemented in the classroom. And if readers are thinking,  “well, I don’t know what to say in that letter,” an example of that letter is included in your freebie

And so that’s really the start of that process – it doesn’t matter whether it’s academic struggle or behavioral struggle, you still do the same thing. And if they have ADHD, they qualify as having a disability – period – for the purposes of the 504 plan. 

SD: Yes, exactly – And I just want to interject one last thing here; that when we refer to “behavior,” it does not always mean getting in trouble. It can also include being shut down, refusing to go to school, etc.  It could be that they’re not engaged at all. There’s a lot of things that fit into that term. So I want to make sure that you’re aware that those are all parts of things that can be addressed.

ES: Thank you Shaye! I look forward to talking with you next month!

About the Guest Speaker: 

As an educator for over 20 years, Shaye Downey has helped thousands of students reach limitless potential. Mrs. Downey earned her bachelor’s degree in education from the University of South Florida in 1997, and went on to earn a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from NOVA Southeastern University in 2001.

She holds a Florida teaching certificate for grades K-6, ESE certification K-12, gifted teaching endorsement, ESOL teaching endorsement and her advocacy training certificate from Wrightslaw Group.

Since 1997, Shaye has taught all levels of students ranging from Kindergarten to 8th grade as well as served as an adjunct professor for Florida Gulf Coast University’s College of Education.

These credentials, coupled with over two decades of experiences in problem solving educational needs with students and families make her an essential part of Elite Education Consulting. From success in academic gains to emotional transformations, she can help students get their needs met from their educational setting.