This article originally appeared in ADDitude Magazine. Click here to read this edition.
In August, the U.S. Department of Labor released an opinion letter stating that parents and guardians would be allowed intermittent use of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to attend Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings with teachers, school administrators, and/or others involved in the planning of education services for their children with special needs.
In the letter, Labor administrator Cheryl Stanton wrote that eligible IEP meetings may include those scheduled to “help participants make medical decisions concerning your children’s medically prescribed speech, physical, and occupational therapy; to discuss your children’s well-being and progress with the providers of such services, and to ensure that your children’s school environment is suitable to their medical, social and academic needs.”
Though the letter is not law, it may open the door for parents to more easily and effectively participate in IEP meetings. Interpreted by many educators and special needs advocates as an invitation to use FMLA to cover time off from work for IEP and possibly 504 Plan meetings, the opinion letter could very well pave the way for codified law in the near future. In the meantime, ADHD advocates, and parents of children with special needs welcome it.
“Anything that encourages family involvement and engagement, and makes [IEP meetings] easier, is a good thing,” says Gregory Fabiano, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Buffalo and an ADHD specialist. “Most IEP meeting times are incompatible with working families’ schedules. So this could open the door to families who’ve been closed out of the process. One could even say this is overdue.”
“It’s well-deserved,” agrees Selene Almazan, legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. “It’s a good step toward recognizing the myriad issues facing families with kids with complex needs or significant disabilities. IEP meetings take up a lot of time and can be stressful for families. So this is an appropriate use of the FMLA.”
If IEP meetings are critical, sometimes slippery, stepping stones toward a child’s improved health and learning, then so too are the 504 Plan meetings that likewise spell out the school accommodations designed to ensure the academic and social success of students with learning challenges, argue some ADHD advocates. However, the Labor letter does not explicitly state that attending 504 Plan meetings is a qualifying reason for taking intermittent FMLA leave.
Still, Selene, for one, reads the letter as applicable to both IEP and 504 Plan meetings. “ADHD is a medical condition and [often] requires medication,” she says. “So I do think [the Labor letter] can apply to families with ADHD [who need to attend] IEP and 504 meetings as well.”
Michelle Ortega, a Long Beach, California, attorney who specializes in special education law, is more cautious. “I do not see this applying to 504 meetings no matter what the condition, because a 504 plan is a functioning of general education and only provides for accommodations,” she says. “Kids on a 504 Plan typically do not receive any Designated Instructional Services such as speech, occupational therapy, or psychological services. 504 Plans usually address academics. However, some kids with ADHD have comorbid diagnoses such as autism, speech impairments, emotional disturbance, or even substance abuse, which may qualify them for an IEP and be considered a ‘serious health’ condition.
“In order to use the FMLA,” Ortega continues, “the child would need to have some sort of Designated Instructional Service on their IEP, such as psychological services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech therapy in order to be considered having a ‘serious health’ condition, which is the term that is repeatedly referred to.”
Julie Skolnick, founder of With Understanding Comes Calm and the 2 Days of 2e Virtual Conference, is cautiously optimistic because “with ADHD and these areas of the FMLA and IEPs, there are a lot of gray and fuzzy areas,” she says, especially if a child does not have a formal diagnosis or an impairment severe enough to merit an IEP. “Our institutions skew toward the medical viewpoint: find the problem, diagnose it, medicate it. It seems no different here.”
To combat this ambiguity and head off potential problems, Ortega recommends that parents document their child’s diagnosis, services, and anticipated meetings with their employers.
Step One: Document the Diagnosis
“A parent who feels that they qualify for FMLA for IEP meetings should inform their employer of their child’s need for an IEP, document any underlying diagnosis, and explain that they will need to attend IEP meetings at least once annually — but possibly more often if there is a change in academic performance, the child gets sick, the child needs a more or less restrictive environment, to discuss services, etc.,” she says.
Step Two: Explain the IEP Meetings
Parents should ask their health care providers “to write a letter informing the employer that attendance at the IEP meeting is vital to the child’s wellbeing,” Ortega says. “The parent should also remind their employer of the [Department of Labor] advisory letter and provide a copy for an employer who may not yet be aware of it.”
Skolnick suggests that employers keep in mind the big picture. “If you don’t let parents go to their IEP or 504 meetings, especially at the beginning of the year, you’re just going to have more times the parents will be calling in sick or missing work in order to pick up their kids from school,” she says.
Step Three: Justify Your Attendance
If your child has a 504 Plan rather than an IEP, you many need to explain to your employer why — though not explicitly covered in the Labor Department letter — your attendance at school meetings is critical. Skolnick offers a persuasive argument.
“504 Plans, while typically designed for children who do not have an otherwise difficult time integrating into the classroom, still need to have parent advocates active in fleshing out the learning differences,” Skolnick says. “Cutting out the parents by making it a challenge to attend a meeting is like taking away an interpreter for a deaf person. Parents provide the language and experience and prism through which a child must be seen. Just as a parent should not dictate what should be done for and with their child, teachers and administrators should not either. It’s a team effort — we need to foster a collaborative atmosphere of trust and shared goals. What is the message we send to employees if we tell them they cannot attend a meeting that is to help support their child’s education success?”
Though the Labor letter is just an opinion case, “It is very persuasive,” Selene says.
“It’s always a good thing and I’m always glad,” says Fabiano, “when institutions do something that helps reduce the stigma around ADHD. It’s good for the child, and for the parents.” And if attending more IEP meetings allows parents and educators to anticipate and meet a student’s needs more effectively, it may reduce the behavior problems and sick days that pull parents away from their work, thereby benefitting employers as well.