ADHD Students & Section 504 Regulations: What Parents & School Psychologists Need To Know

In response to numerous complaints alleging discrimination in elementary and secondary education programs related to ADHD, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued two documents to clarify and provide guidance on Federal obligations of school districts to students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In particular, the OCR provided policy guidance to ensure students are receiving a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as defined in Section 504. The OCR also issued a policy resource guide for school personnel. (See links below)

Major Guidelines

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) broadened the definition of disability by expanding the list of examples of major life activities to include concentrating, reading, thinking and functions of the brain. This includes executive functions that may be compromised by symptoms of ADHD. If a student is found ineligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the school district may be obligated to evaluate eligibility for services through Section 504. It’s important for parents to know they have the right to request a 504 evaluation. The OCR makes it very clear that a diagnosis of ADHD of any type meets the Section 504 definition of a disability. Because students with inattentive presentation may not disrupt classroom activities as much as those with combined or hyperactive-impulsive presentations, teachers may be less likely to notice their concentration difficulties and may not consider referring the student for an evaluation of ADHD. Therefore, school district failure in evaluating under Section 504 for students with ADHD inattentive presentation may be fairly common.

Parents may not be aware that students can achieve a high level of academic success but still meet the Section 504 definition of having a disability. Students can experience limitations to one or more major life activities beyond academic functioning including behavior, organizational skills, and social relationships. Disability evaluation does not exclusively focus on learning and considers the impact of ADHD symptoms on other major life activities. It is possible that students with ADHD obtain average or above average grades but must put additional time and effort into learning activities at school or home to achieve this level of success. Thus, the OCR cautions school practitioners to not rely on GPA or report card grades alone when evaluating students for disability under Section 504. A student with ADHD whose symptoms are well controlled by treatment to the extent that academic and social functioning is appropriate may not require additional services under Section 504. However, these same students would be considered as having a disability and would be protected from discrimination under 504.

Other Guidelines:

  • There cannot be a delay in evaluating students for disability in order to initiate a multitier prevention/intervention process as is allowed under IDEA. An evaluation of the student can occur at the same time that interventions are being implemented. Strategies must not deny or delay evaluation of students suspected of having ADHD
  • The guidelines are explicit that medical assessments are not a required component of an evaluation for ADHD. Although some districts and states require that a physician be involved in making diagnostic decisions about ADHD, this is not mandated by the Department of Education. Therefore, if districts require a medical assessment, the guidance is clear that the school district is liable to pay for that assessment.
  • The educational needs of each student with ADHD are unique. As such, one size does not fit all students with regard to Section 504 service plans. The guidelines indicate that service plans and supports must be tailored to address the unique challenges and needs of each student.
  • The content of 504 plans cannot be restricted to adjustments that are low in cost and relatively easy to implement. The guidelines point out that children with ADHD may require interventions that are more challenging to implement and involve some cost to the district.
  • The guidance clearly indicates that it is the responsibility of school officials and staff, and not parents, to ensure that students receive FAPE. It is imperative for school staff to be responsive to parent requests for identification, evaluation, and plan development. In addition, each school district is required to designate a Section 504 coordinator to ensure that the mandates of this law are followed in the district.
  • School psychologists have the tools to evaluate whether students have ADHD so the OCR highlights that physicians are not required to conduct ADHD diagnostic evaluations.
  • If intervention implementation data suggests that the strategies no longer meet the student’s needs, the plan must be altered in a timely manner to ensure the student’s continued access to FAPE.

Per Patty Martens, it is important to avoid 504 accommodations that can do more harm than good. Although written with the best of intentions, there are some suggestions that are misguided. With 40 years of combined experience, The Patty’s (Patty Martens and Patty Meek) have direct experience with how to avoid this. For example, sitting next to a positive role model or having a peer assist is often recommended, when in reality this sets up the child with ADHD to feel shamed or inferior. Another common recommendation is to put tape on the floor around a student’s desk to show where they can move. In reality, the tape becomes a target and the student becomes the bulls-eye. And of course, there is the student planner contract. The contract usually requires that student to use a planner notebook with the intention of improving organization, when it actually becomes an additional opportunity for the ADHD student to fail. Consider that the ADHD student has a neurological deficit that prevents them from attending to detail, then they are given a contract that states they will be given 20 more details to attend to, including but not limited to, finding the teacher at the right time to initial the planner, finding the parent to initial the planner, finding the assignment written down on the wall, then finding the pencil, then the place in the notebook, not forgetting the planner at home or school…

If you have a child with ADHD and have had success with 504 accommodations, please share them with us.

-Turning Point Assessments


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