You Can Advocate Effectively for Your Special Needs Students!

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Students with special needs receive assistance through federally-mandated education plans. Learn more about these education plans and explore how you can advocate for your special needs students by helping develop these plans.

Special Needs Students

Learning disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more severe and prevent a child from attending general education classes, while others are more subtle and may be harder to notice. Regardless of the severity of special needs, students have a right to special assistance if their disability prevents them from learning as effectively as their classmates.

If you have special needs students in your class, you might be wondering what you can do to help. Before explaining ways you can provide assistance, let's take a quick look at the options available for students with special needs.

What Options Are Available?

Students with special needs typically receive either an IEP or a 504 plan. Both options involve educational plans for students, but they have a number of differences.


IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan and was created as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). In order to qualify for an IEP, a student must be diagnosed with one or more of the 13 conditions covered under IDEA. Eligible disabilities include deafness, speech impairments, autism spectrum disorder, and dyslexia.

special needs student and teacher

IEPs rely heavily on two types of learning adjustments: modifications and accommodations. Accommodations are changes that allow a student to perform the same tasks as their peers. Sample accommodations include allowing a student to choose the format of a test (essay, multiple-choice, etc.) and use their notes and the textbook during the exam. Modifications, on the other hand, involve changing the standard so that a child can remain on track with his or her peers. Examples of modifications might be the use of video lessons in lieu of text and including a word bank on tests.

504 Plans

General education students who do not qualify for IEPs can instead look into a 504 plan. These plans are named after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and have looser requirements, as students need only to be diagnosed with any disability. Under Section 504, a disability is defined as an impairment that 'substantially' limits learning skills, such as reading or concentrating. The impairment must also be permanent--a food allergy could be considered an impairment, but a broken arm would not (even though it limits a student's ability to learn, it is only temporary.)

504 plans generally only include accommodations, and students typically spend all or a majority of the day in a general education setting. These plans are also far less specific than an IEP. Whereas IEPs include annual goals and detailed protocol for special events such as standardized tests, 504 plans only include a list of accommodations for the student.

How Can You Help?

You may be wondering what part you play in the development and implementation of IEPs and 504 plans. You might have a child in your class who is eligible, but what can you do to help?

Because the needs of individual students vary so greatly, both programs offer plenty of flexibility when it comes to modifications and accommodations. No two plans are alike, and each one features unique characteristics that will best meet the child's needs.

These plans are also designed by committee, which includes the child's parents, school administrators, and district representatives. The team has one more member: you! Teachers are legally required to help design IEPs, and they frequently contribute to the construction of 504 plans (though they're not always required to do so.)

designing a plan together

If you want to help your special needs students, this is your chance. Your position as the child's teacher grants you the opportunity to contribute, and with your help, the child will benefit from a detailed and productive education plan.

Your Opinion Counts!

If you're worried about a lack of training when it comes to instructing special needs students, don't be! As the student's teacher, your opinion is highly valued because you interact with the student on a daily basis. You can provide unique insights and offer helpful feedback to both parents and administrators as they work on a plan that will cater to the student's needs.

student and teacher

As mentioned above, IEPs and 504 plans are devised by a committee, and these teams are legally required to include the child's general education teacher. You possess intimate knowledge of the child's study habits and behaviors, and by sharing it with other members of the team, you can ensure the creation of a plan that will be effective and productive. Furthermore, you have a right to know about any modifications or changes that may come about as a result of an IEP or 504 plan, as they will almost certainly have a direct impact on your classroom.

student and teacher

Though it may seem intimidating to get involved, your input can make a huge difference and be an enormous benefit to your students. By taking an active role in the development of educational plans, you'll ensure a productive result for your students.

By Bill Sands
December 2017
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