IEPs vs. 504 Plans: Pediatrician’s Office Often First Stop for Families Navigating Educational Issues

Teacher pointing at a piece of paper with students

A school principal was pushing for a kindergartner diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome to attend school in a regular classroom, despite a report from Jeffrey K. Okamoto, M.D., FAAP, explaining the severity of the boy’s developmental delays and behavioral issues caused in part by constant hunger pangs.

Teachers would have had to address the delays and significant behavior issues such as the likelihood of the boy trying to eat nonfood items. Dr. Okamoto intervened by further explaining the complications of the syndrome, and a special education plan was developed that included having the boy attend school in a special education or self-contained classroom. Had the boy started school without the plan, “I think it would have been a wasted six months for that child,” said Dr. Okamoto, a former member of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee.

The pediatrician’s office often is the first stop for families seeking help with school issues. Navigating the special education system, understanding their rights and collaborating with school officials to come up with a plan can be a confusing, intimidating process for parents.

“Of course, the most important and best role for the pediatrician is to be an advocate for the child,” said Paul H. Lipkin, M.D., FAAP, a former member of the AAP Council on Children with Disabilities Executive Committee.

Both Dr. Okamoto and Dr. Lipkin are developmental pediatricians and experts on the legal requirements schools must follow as they educate children with special educational needs. Those needs, which impact an estimated 15% of U.S. children, include behavioral problems, learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, food allergies and diabetes.