As a former high school teacher, I’ve worked with quite a few kids with ADHD and attended quite a few IEP and 504 meetings where we discussed accommodations. I taught ninth grade for almost every one of those years and this was a significant accommodation update point. This was because most accommodations were left over from middle school and sometimes they emphasized things that were not really a thing in high school (for example, spelling tests often don’t appear in high school, but sometimes still do in middle school), but lacked other things I thought would be beneficial. I can only imagine that the elementary to middle school shift would be similarly different.
My experience with ADHD kids was also impacted by two big things. One, I usually had second lunch so kids had to attend my class for fourth period before having lunch. Two, I worked in low-income schools where quite a few families couldn’t afford ADHD medication and just barely made enough money to be ineligible for any assistance that way. I would like to note that I did have some students that also did not respond well to ADHD medication, so that wasn’t always an available tool for ADHD management.
With these experiences under my belt, I have given some advice to parents I know about what I would recommend asking for, and what they might need to know, to assist their newly diagnosed kid. I recently thought it might be a benefit for more parents outside of my personal social group to hear, so I’m going to share my insights and advice here as someone who actually has seen what it looks like for an ADHD kid in class.
What are 504s and IEPs?
An IEP is an Individualized Education Plan. A meeting is set up through a school’s Special Education department to establish one once a student has been diagnosed with one of the thirteen disabilities as defined by IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and it is determined that the disability in question is adversely impacting them in school. Once a year, this plan is reviewed and adjusted as needed. The plan includes accommodations for helping a student to be successful in a classroom setting and might include provisions determining where a student sits, how much time they have to complete work, how their work gets graded etc. These accommodations are legally binding and teachers must abide by them.
A 504 is very similar except the student has a situation not covered by the thirteen IDEA Act categories despite their situation impacting their ability to learn. A situation that needs accommodations but doesn’t qualify for an IEP gets a 504 and is handled through the counseling department. A 504 still gets yearly reviews and is still legally binding like an IEP. Kids with severe ADHD (or ADHD coupled with a disability from the IDEA Act Thirteen) will get an IEP. Otherwise, kids with ADHD can be covered by a 504. If your diagnosis happened through the school, they usually streamline things. If not, you may need to contact your child’s school to get things started.
What role should a student play in accommodations?
The older students get, the more they should be involved in speaking up about what their needs are, especially regarding accommodations. On the teacher side, I can make suggestions and give feedback based on what I have noticed, but the student in question knows themselves better than anyone else and absolutely needs to have their voice be part of a process. A student knows which classes are a bigger struggle for them than others, a student knows when they struggle to focus or get easily distracted (they also can tell you what things are their biggest distractions), and a student also knows if they struggle to complete work on time or face other challenges. Make sure the student isn’t just being steamrolled by the adults involved in the process.
What is Preferential Seating?
Preferential seating is a common accommodation on IEPs and 504s. However, the wording is a bit tricky and a thing I’ve asked to be clarified on quite a few accommodations. For teachers, this means front row seating. For the people writing the IEPs, it usually means seated away from distractions. Sometimes, a kid truly does need to be in the front seat, and that is okay. However, if what they really need is seated away from distractions, the wording “preferential seating” can be a challenge.
You see, what usually happened is every ADHD kid has to be seated in the first row because their accommodations listed “preferential seating”. You know what is a common distraction is for a lot of ADHD kids? Having to sit in a cluster with all of the other ADHD kids, and since they’ve all been sitting together in the front row for years on end they all know each other really well and are often really good buddies. If you want to really put the kids and teacher on a difficult setting, you put them all in the same second lunch class together. I can’t even count the number of meetings where I have displayed my seating chart to a SPED teacher or counselor and said “legally I have to sit these students all together if it’s written this way and it’s really sabotaging the kid who struggles to focus.” Once I pointed out that if what they needed was seated away from distractions, and that their biggest distraction was each other, that I would be allowed to move them where they could all actually focus better if things were reworded slightly. It’s a small thing to do which often made a huge positive difference for everyone involved. If your kid truly needs front row seating, specify that. If what they actually need is to be seated away from distractions, write it that way. I feel like I should add it would also be helpful if what the student finds distracting is noted. Some ADHD kids may do just fine right next to their friends, but really struggle if they can see what’s happening outside the door or a window. Let the student help specify what sort of seating they need to have and make sure it’s written accurately.
What is Strategic Scheduling?
This is a term I use to describe when you intentionally set up a kid’s class schedule to be easier on their ADHD. Where some classes are only offered in very specific periods (things like Marching Band or Honors/Advanced Classes), a lot of core classes have some flexibility. This flexibility really should be used to set up a kid for success. This is where getting feedback from a kid is critical. They know which classes are the most challenging and they can probably tell you why as well. If your kid does take medication, consider when the medication is at its full power and when it’s wearing off (they can help you pinpoint where that time is). If your kid’s medication is at its lowest strength at the end of the day, consider what class will be easiest for them then. If I had an ADHD kid of my own, I would certainly bring up what sort of strategic scheduling accommodations might be helpful.
Lunchtime might be the first thing to look at. If you make an ADHD kid sit through four core classes and then have lunch, fourth period might be really hard for them. Honestly, I would give as many ADHD kids first lunch when possible if your school doesn’t have a just single lunch for all students. If second lunch can’t be avoided, consider if the student can avoid their most challenging class for fourth with second lunch. If that’s what can’t be avoided, can their third period class maybe not be their second hardest subject?
For the rest of the schedule, really consider what time of the day the kid says they are at their best and what they have identified as the hardest class for them. If they say they are not good at focusing in the morning, don’t give them their hardest class then. Do they admit they get extra antsy watching the clock during the last period of the day? Don’t put their hardest class at the end of their schedule. Do they know they get really ramped up and hyper after P.E.? Don’t put the class they struggle in the most right after.
I do hope this has given some of you some insights on things that might be really helpful and conversations to have with your student and with the relevant staff during your IEP or 504 meetings. Help a kid set themselves up for success and it can make a huge difference.
Good luck on your school year,