Getting your child help at school can be confusing and intimidating. There are all sorts of new terms to understand, deadlines to track, and policies to follow. While the law requires parental participation and informed consent, even the most informed parents can sometimes feel confused. 

One starting point for clearing up this confusion is figuring out what kind of plan will best suit your child. For most students, there are two formal pathways towards receiving supports in school, an IEP or a 504 plan. An IEP or individualized education plan is a document that lays out how the school provides special education services to an eligible child. A 504 plan documents how the school will support and remove barriers for a child with a disability.

The problem is that at a surface level both a 504 plan and an IEP sound pretty similar. Both offer support at no cost to the family and requires a child to meet some eligibility criteria. A team of school professionals and the parent help draft both. And each offers a process for dealing with disputes between the school and parents.

504 Plans vs. IEPs: Does It Matter? - picture of desks

Let’s run through what’s different.

Individual Education Plans

IEPs are driven by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that mandates services for children with disabilities. The federal government requires each state to develop its own implementation of IDEA which can make things a little confusing if you are moving to a different state.

Eligibility for an IEP requires two things: the child meets one of the 13 disability categories and needs specialized instruction because the disability impacts the child’s educational performance or ability to benefit from the general education curriculum. 

IEPs are drafted by IEP teams which include several different types of members:

  • The parent
  • At least one of the parent’s general education teachers
  • A special education teacher
  • A school psychologist or another professional who can interpret testing results (e.g. occupational therapist, speech-language pathologist)
  • A representative of the school district who can make decisions about special education resources or local education agency representative and could be a special education teacher or a school administrator.

Each IEP includes the following:

  • The child’s present levels of academic and functional performance – basically, how is the child doing in school. These are usually broken down into smaller areas like reading, communication, and behavior.
  • Annual goals that lay out what will be worked on and what data will be tracked.
  • A list of services the child will receive including frequency, length, and duration – this might be specialized instruction, counseling, or speech therapy, for example.
  • Accommodations and modifications – any changes that are made to the child’s learning environment or expectations of a student, e.g. preferential seating or copies of teacher’s notes.
  • Any changes to how a child will participate in standardized testing.
  • How the child will participate in general and special education classes/activities.

The IEP team reviews the IEP annually and reconsiders eligibility for special education every three years.

504 Plans

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 drives 504 plans. Congress passed this federal civil rights law to eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities. 504 plans are how we implement the law in a school.

To be eligible for a 504 plan, the child can have any kind of a disability and that disability must interfere with an activity of daily living. For kids, this is learning at school, so the disability must impact the child’s ability to learn in a general education classroom. 

504 teams have fewer requirements than an IEP team. The parent and other staff members who can understand the evaluation data and make decisions about services make up the team. This often means a school counselor or administrator participates.

Unlike an IEP, there are no set requirements from the federal level as to what should be included. Each district, and sometimes each school, will develop its own 504 plan form. It should list the services, accommodations, and supports that the child receives, as well as who is responsible for the delivery. It should also designate someone on the school staff as accountable for monitoring the plan. 

Generally, 504 plans do not offer modifications to the curriculum, but they aren’t prevented from offering them. Modifications mean that changes have been made to the expectations for learning. This might mean a different grading rubric or a reduction in workload.

504 plans do not have a mandated time for review or re-evaluation fo eligibility. Most states follow a process similar to having an IEP. The 504 team reviews the plan annually and eligibility every three years.

Which Should I Pick? A 504 Plan or an IEP?

In the end, it really depends upon the nature of your child’s disability and how it is affecting his learning. If you think that your child has one of the thirteen disabilities and needs specialized instruction to succeed in school, then go through the special education process. Otherwise, it might make more sense to pursue a 504 plan. You need to make a formal request to the school to start the process for either kind of plan. 

IEP vs. 504 plan chart

On the positive side, the school can use the information gained from the eligibility process for one plan to develop the other kind of plan if that makes more sense for your child. In other words, the IEP team might find that your child isn’t eligible for special education services, but then reconvenes as a 504 plan team to develop those supports for your child.

It’s important to note that there are different legal protections in place for students who have an IEP than there are for students with a 504 plan. Mostly this has to do with how and where complaints are filed. The amount of notice before a change occurs also varies between the two. The parent of a child in special education receives prior written notice before any change of service or placement occurs. On a 504 plan, the school must notify parents about evaluations or a significant change in placement. This notice can be in any format.

It’s always helpful to sit down with someone at school and review your options as you are thinking about moving forward with either a 504 plan or an IEP.

Do you have more questions about IEPs or 504 plans? Leave your questions in the comments section or contact me directly.