by Sandra Rief


Adapted from my books: How to Reach & Teach Children with ADD/ADHD, 2nd edition (2005) and The ADD/ADHD Checklist, 2nd edition (2008).

There are two main laws protecting students with disabilities – including those with ADHD: 1) Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (known as IDEA or IDEA 2004) and 2) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (known as Section 504).

 IDEA is special education law. Section 504 is a civil rights statute that prohibits discrimination. Both laws guarantee to qualifying students a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), in the least restrictive environment (LRE), which means with their non-disabled peers, to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs.

They both also require school districts to provide students with disabilities: supports (e.g., adaptations, accommodations, modifications, related aids and services) to enable the disabled student to participate and learn in the general education program, the opportunity to participate in extracurricular and non-academic activities, a free, nondiscriminatory evaluation, and procedural due process.

Because there are different a) criteria for eligibility, b) services/supports available, and c) procedures and safeguards for implementing the laws, it is important for parents, educators, clinicians, and advocates to be well-aware of the variations between IDEA and Section 504, and fully informed about their respective advantages and disadvantages.



Who is Eligible?

IDEA provides special education and related services to students who meet the eligibility criteria under one of thirteen separate disability categories. Students with ADHD most commonly fall under the IDEA disability category of “Other Health Impaired” (OHI). Although, when the child has co-existing learning disabilities, the SLD (specific learning disability) category may be the one the child qualifies under. OHI eligibility criteria requires that:

  • the child has a chronic or acute health problem (ADD/ADHD)
  • causing limited strength, vitality, or alertness in the educational environment (This includes limited alertness to educational tasks due to heightened alertness to environmental stimuli)
  • which results in an adverse effect on the child’s educational performance
  • to the degree that special education is needed in order to receive appropriate education.

Note: The adverse effect on educational performance is not limited to academics, but can include impairments in other aspects of school functioning, such as behavioral, as well.

The IEP Process

  • Parents/guardians or school personnel may refer a child – requesting an evaluation to determine eligibility for special education/related services.
  • An assessment plan is developed by the school’s multidisciplinary evaluation team, addressing all areas of suspected disability.
  • After parents/guardians consent to the assessment plan, the child receives a comprehensive evaluation by the multidisciplinary team of school professionals – assessing the student’s academic, developmental, and functional skills (at no cost to parents).
  • After the evaluation, an IEP meeting is held. If it is determined that the student meets eligibility criteria under one of the disability categories, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is developed by a multidisciplinary team, which includes the child’s parents. This IEP is tailored to meet the unique needs of the student, and is the guide for every educational decision made for the child. At all stages, parents are an integral part of the process and team; and the IEP does not go into effect until parents sign the IEP and agree to the plan.

Some key information specified in the IEP

  • The special education programs and related services, supplementary aids, and modifications/accommodations that are to be provided
  • Present levels of educational performance, including how the child’s disability affects his/her involvement and progress in the general curriculum
  • Annual, measurable goals
  • The extent (if any) to which the child will not participate with non-disabled children in the regular class and other school activities
  • Any modifications in the administration of state and district-wide tests the child will need in order to participate in those assessments

After the IEP is Written

  • Services are provided. This includes all programs, supplemental aids, services, program modifications and accommodations.
  • Progress is measured and reported to parents.
  • Students are re-evaluated at least every 3 years.

More Key Features

  • IDEA strongly emphasizes the provision of special education and related services that enable students to access and progress in the general education program.
  • IDEA also has important provisions regarding disciplinary procedures for children with disabilities. There are safeguards so that children are not unfairly disciplined when misbehavior stems from the disability itself.
  •  Before a student is suspended for more than 10 cumulative days (or a pattern of short term removals amounting to 10 days or more), expelled, or placed in another setting due to behavioral issues and violations of school rules, IDEA calls for a “Manifestation Determination Review”(except in circumstances involving weapons, drugs, bodily injury, or when the student is a threat to self or others).
  • This review is to determine if the behavior for which the student is being disciplined is a manifestation of his/her disability, and if so the IEP team needs to determine and ensure appropriate services, interventions, and placement; and disciplinary actions imposed must be appropriate for the student’s disability.
  • IDEA also requires that either before (but not later than 10 days after) taking a disciplinary action resulting in a change of placement, the school is to conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) and implement a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) for the student.



Section 504

Who is Eligible?

Students with ADHD may also be protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (even if they do not meet eligibility criteria under IDEA for special education). Section 504 is a federal civil rights statute that:

  • protects the rights of people with disabilities from discrimination by any agencies receiving federal funding (including all public schools)
  • applies to students with a record of (or who are regarded as having) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life function – which includes learning
  • is intended to provide students with disabilities equal access to education and commensurate opportunities to learn as their non-disabled peers

If the school team determines that the child’s ADHD does significantly limit his or her learning, the child/teen would be eligible for a 504 Plan designating:

  • Reasonable accommodations in the educational program
  • Related aids and services, if deemed necessary (e.g., counseling, assistive technology)

The implementation of a 504 Plan typically falls under the responsibility of general education, not special education. A few sample classroom accommodations may include:

  • Tailoring homework assignments
  • Extended time for testing
  • Preferential seating
  • Supplementing verbal instructions with visual instructions
  • Organizational assistance
  • Using behavioral management techniques
  • Modifying test delivery

Parents seeking supports and accommodations for their child should ask the school to evaluate and determine whether or not their son or daughter may be eligible for such under Section 504, if not under IDEA. To determine eligibility under Section 504 (the impact of the disability on learning), the school is required to do an assessment. This is typically a less extensive evaluation than that conducted for the IEP process (although the same evaluation required for special education evaluation can be used to determine Section 504 eligibility.

Which One is Right for My Child –

 A 504 Plan or an IEP?

This is a decision that the team (parents and school personnel) must make considering eligibility criteria and the specific needs of the individual student. For students with ADHD who have more significant school difficulties, IDEA is usually preferable because:

  • IEPs provide more protections (procedural safeguards, monitoring, and regulations) with regard to evaluation, frequency of review, parent participation, disciplinary actions, and other factors
  • Specific goals are a key component of the plan, and regularly monitored for progress
  • There is a much wider range of program options, services and supports available
  • IDEA provides funding for programs/services (Section 504 is not funded)

For students who have milder impairments, and don’t need special education, a 504 Plan is a faster, easier procedure for obtaining accommodations and supports. They can be very effective for those students whose educational needs can be addressed through adjustments, modifications, and accommodations in the general curriculum/classroom.

For more information on your child’s educational rights, here are a few recommended resources:






©2012, Sandra Rief