Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Anxiety, and Section 504

Talk at the lunchroom table recently has revolved around the latest fad in 504 Plans, and that's anxiety.

But let's back up for people who don't know what a 504 Plan is.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was designed to help kids with physical issues.  Apparently there were some rather inflexible teachers back in those days, teachers who wouldn't accommodate a child's physical issues.  Section 504 requires schools to make accommodations, such as:
  • allowing a student with low blood sugar to eat a candy bar, even if food isn't allowed in class
  • giving an exceptionally obese student more time to get to class, especially if he/she has to walk across campus
  • cutting slack on assignments related to color for the kid who's colorblind
  • getting large-print books for a student who's near-blind
The following comes from a pamphlet put out by the Office of Civil Rights:
Section 504 defines an individual with a disability as a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include caring for one’s self, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks and learning.

Some examples of impairments that may substantially limit major life activities include: HIV/AIDS, blindness or low vision, cancer, deafness, diabetes, heart disease, intellectual disabilities and mental illness.
You get the idea.  Pretty common-sense, right?  Well, the problem with Section 504 is that there's one clause in it that, like the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution, has been blown and stretched out of its original meaning to essentially become a catch-all for any additional bennie a parent can get for a child, and that's "and specific learning disabilities."

You might think that ends it, but let's look at the definition of "physical or mental impairment" that requires accommodation under Section 504:
(A) any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory; including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hermetic and lymphatic; skin; or endocrine; or
(B) any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.
You can see that Section 504 is designed to accommodate certain specific disabilities, and I assert that "specific learning disabilities" was understood when it was written to mean disabilities more like dyslexia and less like "oppositional-defiance disorder" or "anxiety".

If a parent wants special consideration for his/her kid, all he/she has to do is get a doctor to say that the child has some "condition" and the world of 504 accommodations opens up for them.  For the longest time, ADD/ADHD was the prize; if you could get that diagnosis you could ask for the sun, the moon, and some unicorn farts for your kid and the schools pretty much gave it to you (actually, administration promised it all and the teachers have to make it happen).  Get a diagnosis, any diagnosis, and your kid gets a leg up on all the other kids.  Bonus!  Of course not every parent and/or student abuses Section 504, but abuse is common enough that I haven't met a teacher yet who doesn't get at least a little frustrated when a new 504 Plan hits their mailbox.

So back to the lunchtime conversation.  Several of us have noticed that, over the past few years, we're getting more and more students in class with 504 Plans.  Furthermore, ADD/ADHD, the former gold standard in diagnoses, is starting to go out of favor.  The up-and-coming diagnosis is, you guessed it, anxiety.

I myself am noticing this trend, as I've put three students in the past four days in tears.  And I'm not even trying!  Ask someone a question they can't answer, anxiety!  Ask someone to focus on their schoolwork, anxiety!  Look at a kid the wrong way, anxiety!

And it's not like I'm known as Mr. Mean, either.  In general I have very good rapport with students, and being less than two weeks into the school year so far it's not like I'm tired of kids, don't like kids, or any other excuse someone could come up with.  I'm just flummoxed!

I was discussing a recent "event" with one of our school counselors today.  We view things pretty much the opposite of each other but we agreed on this:  kids are getting this diagnosis and we have to deal with it.  I don't want "I need to go talk to my counselor!" to be a get-out-of-class-free card, and she doesn't want kids who genuinely need to talk to be denied.

There must be some median between "There there, baby" and "Suck it up, Buttercup."  I hope we find it, because 504 Plans have been around for a long time and they're not going away.

Personally, I lean more to the way of thinking that says we should teach the kids effective ways to deal with their own anxiety and not expect someone else to fix it for them all the time, but that's just me.  I'm Mr. Mean.

UpdateHere's some related humor.


maxutils said...

There's is a median ... any doctor can write a note saying a child suffers from a mental disorder, but most ... in my experience, are GPs not specifically trained in assessing mental illnesses. IT should be required that the diagnosis be made by an actual psychiatrist, based on a full workup of tests. That won't STOP the problem, but it should certainly slow it. I just always figured that my class was hard enough that if they were faking/bluffing/mistaken ... I could give them any advantage, and it probably wouldn't matter. Sort of like you and your note cards (for which, I totally agree -- handwritten only, and limited in size).

Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

I have autistic children and anxiety can be part of the disability. One of my sons (as discussed before) was locked in a closet by staff and suffers PTSD symptoms. He likes to sit in a quiet place without people touching him. He would prefer to be seated on the end of a row. He has an IEP, not a 504, and really his accomodations are not biggies.

They make a big difference to him, however.

I've never heard of extra lunch time or test-taking time, and I would never think of asking for these things as they are not needed.

Darren said...

The accommodations you listed are reasonable, especially for someone with autism. Clearly what I was discussing what not what you're talking about, but rather the rampant abuse in the system.

Ellen K said...

Today we got our paperwork.
IEP's for those with disabilities, as well as ESL/ELL and G/T students. Pity the average kid who will end up forgotten in the corner as teachers become crazy trying to address a different IEP for almost every kids in class. This way lies madness.