School districts are less and less willing these days to put children on IEPs (individualized education programs), preferring to keep them on 504 plans. On the surface, it may seem like this is okay – but is it?
What’s the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan?
An IEP sets out specific services a child will receive and specific goals and objectives that the school district is expected to accomplish. The 504 plan (which refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act) is designed for children who need less assistance. The kids on 504 plans may need only to have an FM provided, and they may have a teacher of the deaf and/or speech-language pathologist check on their progress periodically. Kids on 504 plans are not usually getting direct services. Kids on IEPs get evaluated regularily ( though not often enough), while but kids on 504 plans are not evaluated regularily.
What’s the problem?
Kids who are on 504 plans do not have goals and objectives that the school district is being required to provide. In districts where I have been asked to consult (by parents who feel they need assistance) the district says that the child does not need to be on an IEP if the child is academically at grade level. On the surface that seems reasonable. So here are my concerns. Many kids with hearing loss enter school in kindergarten at grade level but develop difficulties in second or third grade as the work becomes more difficult and the teacher starts to repeat less. “I’m going to say this once, so you had better listen carefully.” For a child with hearing loss, once may not be enough. As class discussion becomes an important part of learning, a child with hearing loss may miss out on a lot. Kids do not fail all of a sudden. Things start to slip but not all at once. It can take a year or sometimes more to realize that the child is not working at grade level.
How good is “good enough”?
Depending on the particular school district there are different standards for what is good or excellent. It is one thing to compare your kids to those across the nation, and another to compare them to the kids in their class. A child in a high performing school district will have significant problems if they are performing at the 50 percentile level when compared to children nationwide. The kids in their district are performing at a much higher level and those with hearing loss need to be able to compete. In my view, kids deserve to be the best they can be. And if that means the school district has to provide a little more, then it just does.
How can we get kids on an IEP?
In my opinion, almost all kids with hearing loss should be on an IEP. It just makes it easier to get them services when needed. Some kids will need very little, others will need much more. How do we know what services a child needs? By evaluating their performance. When I am trying to determine what services a child needs I ask for three evaluations. I want to see: (1) an audiological evaluation with extensive speech perception testing in quiet and noise with technology, (2) a speech-language-listening evaluation by a clinician experienced in working with children with hearing loss who are using audition to learn, and(3) a recent psychoeducational evaluation.
With the audiological evaluation, I want to compare what the child can hear with technology to what their peers hear. Normal hearing in quiet and in noise is 90%-100%. Is the child hearing at that level? If not, how will that affect learning in school? When reviewing the other evaluations I am not interested in the total score (which is what many school districts use to determine if services are needed). I am interested in looking at subtests and seeing areas of weakness. Many children have significant areas of strength that bring their total score into the normal range, yet they also still have significant areas of weakness. If those areas are not addressed, they can have significant negative consequences for learning.
By demonstrating what the child can and cannot hear, and areas of weakness, it is easy to make a case for what services a child needs and to make an argument for who needs to provide the services. We do not always succeed but we have the data to make the case.