Q: My middle school son has ADHD and is receiving a school 504 Plan (an individualized educational plan for students with medical disabilities to ensure that they have academic success). The accommodations the school is offering go too far in my opinion. They say he can have extra time to do assignments and doesn’t have to take his own notes in class. This may help him right now, but I feel like the school should be doing more to help him succeed long term, right?
You are what most teachers would call “The Exception.” Many parents insist that their child’s disability (often ADHD, but it could be literally anything) prevents them from taking notes, doing homework, or being punished. They may leave for a “time out” whenever they want to. They can submit their work days past the deadline. They can arrive tardy to class without consequences. If they need extra tutoring, I am to give up my lunch break to supply it.
All this so they can pass from one grade to the next.
The sad reality is that even though they’ll assuredly pass their grade, they may learn very little in doing so. Why? Mainly because most of the hard work that catalyzes learning has either been transferred from student to teacher or has been dispensed with altogether.
That’s a significant problem, but there’s a worse one: many of the accommodations to the student’s disability preclude him from acquiring meaningful coping skills. This can keep him from thriving (and often even functioning) as an adult. The concept of training the child to become a productive member of society − to stand on his own two feet − has been utterly obliterated.
The aim of a 504 Plan is to provide “accommodations.” Merriam-Webster defines an accommodation as “a convenient arrangement; a settlement, or compromise.” Is this a good way to train children for the rigors of independent responsibility? By making “convenient arrangements?” By “settling?” It is any wonder that making “compromises” has compromised the very education we are trying to instill?
In fact, the “convenience” is only to the student who never has to change his behavior, alter his attitude, or overcome his handicaps. That’s the biggest flaw in many 504 Plans. Instead of providing strategies to help the child prevail over his disability, they simply force the child’s world − in this case, school − to make the path clear for him to indulge in it.
It’s not hard to predict that kids who are never permitted to stand will never learn to walk, much less fly.
There are two important caveats. One, parents and teachers who devise such accommodations mean well. They feel love and pity for the child and want to make the journey a little easier so he or she doesn’t fall behind. The problem is that the adult world will not be nearly so pitying when that child becomes a full grown man or woman who doesn’t come to work on time, fails to take notes in important meetings, isn’t able to complete difficult tasks, can’t keep up with his or her own schedule and has to constantly request delays.
Secondly, there are many 504 students whose disabilities genuinely require some of these accommodations. This is especially true of kids with short-term medical limitations, like those with broken arms who can’t write or those undergoing chemotherapy who can’t attend school. I’m certainly not saying that every child’s plan has him heading in the wrong direction.
But when the plan misses the mark, it has the potential to hurt the child. Take, for example, the common 504 accommodation that a child may have extra days to turn in homework. This usually punishes the child. While he’s still working on Monday’s assignment, the class is onto a new chapter. This pattern will keep putting him exponentially behind, and that’s the precise thing we’re trying to prevent. Also, it trains the child to think that all deadlines are variable. He’ll finish it when he finishes it.
A better accommodation − and one that is just as loving − might be to give the student strategies to ensure that he can meet the deadline. Write into the plan that he will use a daytimer to map out time needed to devote to his studies. Write in it that video games or sports or some other reinforcer will be employed only after the schedule has been completed. Put into the plan that the student will regularly check with the teacher to ensure that progress is being made.
In general, a 504 Plan should not erase the student’s burden to learn. It should help him manage it. It should not fabricate an artificial world where his disability poses no impediment. It should teach him to overcome it.
You might not think that Sarah Michelle “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Gellar’s Instagram feed is a source of educational wisdom, but she offers some excellent advice to parents: “It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” 504 Plans should adopt this same judicious precept.