It is not uncommon for parents to be concerned about their child’s progress in school while seeking treatment for an eating disorder. Will my child have to take a leave from school? Will he fall behind his peers? How will she have enough time to finish schoolwork when she is in program for six or ten hours a day? These are understandable fears and questions that a parent might have when considering enrolling a child or teenage into an eating disorder program.
Some schools are very understanding and are able to make accommodations while the child is in treatment, such as providing homework packets to be done at home or providing the option to do courses online. If the school is not able to make the appropriate accommodations, parents have the right to ask for a Section 504 Plan because children with eating disorders meet the criteria for this service.
What is a 504 Plan? “Section 504 requires that school districts provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to qualified students in their jurisdictions who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. Under Section 504, FAPE means providing regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met” (source: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html). It’s important to note that private schools that receive no federal funding do not have to honor a 504.
What’s the difference between a 504 and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)? IEPs are generally reserved for specific conditions that affect academic performance and require special education or services such as speech pathology. As that is often not the case for children with eating disorders, a 504 is a more common and appropriate avenue to pursue.
Why might one make the effort of getting a 504? Parent mentor and educator Andree shares her thoughts: “I think many parents do not believe their child needs or qualifies for a 504 because they have students who excel. However, 504s can be temporary or long term and are often used for a range of illnesses (including eating disorders, anxiety and ADHD). For many families, the child’s school might be able to make every accommodation possible while the child is in treatment. However if the school is not able to accommodate your child, a 504 will provide the necessary supports.” When you start the process in requesting a 504 plan, be sure to have a physician’s diagnosis paperwork with you as this will be critical in documenting that your child meets criteria.
Can a 504 plan remain active when my child returns to school? The short answer is yes. As your child transitions back to school, consider every possible stumbling block and have a plan. From keeping food in the nurse’s fridge and scheduling accommodations that allow for afternoon appointments to non-cardio PE and eating lunch with a trusted adult, everything should be considered. Think about talking through every part of your child’s day with them to determine what fears might be lingering and work with the team to address it. As things change and new issues come up, know you can call a 504 meeting at any time to make an addendum or to add new accommodations to the service plan.
Another parent mentor adds his thoughts, “We have never used a 504 plan because we have dealt directly with school personnel who have been helpful and accommodating. We have been fortunate – but, thankfully, the 504 does not depend on luck. It puts the law on your side a critical point when dealing with a public that, by and large, misunderstands eating disorders.”
In general, making a verbal request to a counselor or administrator should be enough to get the ball rolling; a formal request should be made in writing if you sense any reluctance. If you are ever in doubt about information you are receiving from the school, ask them to cite the specific section of your state’s educational code where you can find the information.
Education is one piece of the often-overwhelming puzzle that comes along with treating and recovering from an eating disorder. A 504 can make sure all players on the same page and that your child’s school understands their obligations and role during your child’s recovery.
Jennifer Denise Ouellette is a member of the Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) at the UCSD Eating Disorders Center. The PAC is a group of parents with children who have completed the UCSD adolescent eating disorders program and whose role is to support new parents as they enter the program. You can follow her on Twitter @jugglingjenn