Parents who are seeking out additional support for their child are often confused about the difference between an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and a 504 plan. Both plans provide support and often accommodations for a student with a disability. However, there are some key differences that may help you to decide which plan is a better choice for your child:

What Should I Know About IEPs and 504 Plans?

Both plans are made available at no cost to the family and have the goal of providing a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities that is comparable to the education of their non-disabled peers. However, Individualized Education Programs are regulated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a federal special education law for children with disabilities. This act provides additional funding to the school for students with identified disabilities who qualify for special education services. 504 plans are provided in compliance with a civil rights law intended to stop discrimination against people with disabilities, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. A primary difference between the two plans is that an IEP provides access to specialized instruction from a special education teacher or a variety of other specialists. Students with a 504 plan  are not able to receive specialized instruction or related services such as speech, occupational, or physical therapy. However, many consider a 504 plan to be less restrictive and stigmatizing for a student who is generally doing well but just needs extra ongoing or temporary supports that can be provided through accommodations like extended time. An IEP only lasts through 12th grade and does not follow a student to college. In college, students can apply for and receive accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation ACT of 1973. 

Who Qualifies?

In order to qualify for an IEP, a student has to have one of the 13 disabilities listed in IDEA and that disability must impact that child’s educational performance or ability to access and learn from the general education curriculum. However, it is easier to qualify for a 504 plan and many students who do not meet the requirements for an IEP can still receive accommodations under a 504 plan due to their disability.  In order to qualify for a 504 plan, a student just has to have a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more basic life activities. A student can not have both an IEP and a 504 plan. If a student is eligible for special education, they would have only an IEP.

What Does the Plan Contain and Who Makes it?

An IEP is created and modified by an IEP team. This team must include the parent or guardian, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a specialist or school psychologist if test results are being interpreted, and an administrator with authority over special education services at the school. An IEP is a written document that sets learning goals and describes the type of specialist who will provide each type of instruction or service. In addition to educational goals, the IEP must include:

  1. a present level of performance which explains how the child is currently doing in school
  2. a services section that outlines the services a child will receive
  3. any modifications to the curriculum or what the child is expected to learn
  4. a list of accommodations or changes to the child’s learning environment
  5. an explanation of how the child will participate in the general education curriculum
  6. an outline of how the child will participate in standardized tests. 

The 504 plan does not contain a standardized format and, surprisingly, is not even required to be a written document. A 504 plan is usually created in a meeting with a parent, teachers, the school principal or possibly a school counselor. It can contain accommodations, supports, services, and name the person responsible for implementing each part of the plan or the plan as a whole.

Here is a helpful side-by-side comparison of the two types of plans in a chart format compiled by understood.org. Parents should take a careful look at both the IEP and a 504 plan, become familiar with each, and consider the unique needs of their child before deciding to pursue one  option over another.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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