By Sabrina Bartels – When I first started as a counselor, I remember being overwhelmed with so many things. In addition to learning where all of the classrooms were, all of the teachers’ names, and how to keep track of 360 + students, I was also thrown a major curveball. Two months into my counseling career, I was faced with running a 504 meeting. I remember looking at the file, looking at the 504, and wanting to cry. It wasn’t the 504 itself that scared me; my grad school classes had talked about 504s and their role in schools, but I had never had to run a meeting about one before. And now, I was supposed to magically learn how to do one!
So now, I’m here to pass on my knowledge of 504s. Hopefully, this prevents another new counselor from experiencing that absolute panic!
Let’s start with this: In the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, there is a piece called Section 504. The Rehabilitation Act prevents schools from discriminating against people with disabilities. Section 504 requires that the needs of a student with a disability are met to the same degree as the needs of a student who does not have a disability. Essentially, Section 504 helps students with disabilities be successful by offering them different tools and accommodations that go above and beyond what already occurs in the classroom.
In order to have a 504 in place, a student must qualify for one. To qualify for a 504, a student must have a disability (physical or mental) that significantly impacts one or more major life activities. Though this is a little subjective, the “major life activities” that are often listed on 504 referral sheets are concentrating, self-care tasks, reading, walking, standing, breathing, hearing, seeing, speaking, communicating, and performing manual tasks. This usually requires documentation from a doctor or therapist to explain how the disability affects the student.
Once you have a student who has a 504, you need to have a 504 team. My 504 team usually consists of an administrator, our district nurse, at least one of the regular education teachers that works with the student on a daily basis, the parent, the student, and myself. Depending on the school you are at, this may vary. Oftentimes, a school psychologist is also involved with 504s. (In my district, it is the counselor’s responsibility to hold all of the 504 reviews.) The job of the 504 team is to review the 504 plan and determine if there needs to be any revisions made. This review happens at least once a year, but can happen more. Any time revisions are made, the team has to sit down and make that decision.
Once you have your team, you can create a 504 plan. This is a list of the accommodations and goals for the student. There can be a wide assortment of accommodations. For example, I have a student who has anxiety. Under her 504 plan, she is allowed to have extra time on tests, quizzes, and any district-wide assessments. She also has a special pass where she can come and see me (this avoids her having to ask the teacher every time she needs to see me; asking teachers made her nervous about how other students would view her.) She is also allowed to take breaks during the day, whether that means going to get a drink of water, or take a quick lap around the building, to get her mind off things.
When it comes to 504 meetings and accommodations, here are a few tips I’ve learned:
- Always have a copy of the previous year’s 504 for everyone to review at your meeting. Sometimes, you forget all of the accommodations that are already in place. Maybe one of the accommodations isn’t useful anymore. It’s easy to cross things out and add things in when the old plan is right there in front of you.
- Always start with the positives. Whenever I hold a 504 meeting, I always start by praising the student. Whether it’s something little, or something major, I always make sure to mention the good things the student is doing. It puts students at ease, and also makes parents smile!
- Ask for all input. I always start by having the teachers and parents go around the table and discuss what they have seen in class and at home. It provides teachers the opportunity to connect with parents and express their concerns/accomplishments, and it gives parents a chance to discuss what is going on at home.
- Do your homework. Really, this is a big thing. Go to teachers beforehand and ask about the student. Call parents and see how things are going. Do some of the legwork before the meeting to make the review go as smooth as possible. This is also a good time for teachers or parents to bring up concerns about needing or not needing a 504 anymore. It’s best to get those thoughts in private sometimes, as opposed to putting someone on the spot during a review.
Best of luck, counselors!