IEP vs 504 Plan? What’s the difference?

So, your child has been referred for special education. Suddenly you are dumped into a world of acronyms and forms and legal jargon. It can be overwhelming.

This month, let’s break it down. We’ll start with a basic, and common, question.

IEP vs 504 Plan? What’s the difference?

IEP (3)
On the surface, these two education plans look very similar: both modify school to better meet the needs of your child and help her succeed academically, socially, or both. However, beyond the goal to smooth out the bumps in school, IEPs and 504 Plans could not be more different.

Individual Education Plan

An IEP, or Individual Education Plan, is a legal document that specifies the accommodations and modifications your child requires to access the curriculum. Before your child’s IEP can be drawn up, your child will need to be evaluated and the results of that evaluation will need to be discussed by the school team (parents/guardians, school administrator, special education teacher, general education teacher, and any specialists).

To qualify, your child needs to fit one or more of thirteen categories of disability. In other words, being behind in math does not automatically qualify you for an IEP.

In addition to meeting the criteria of the disability categories, the disability must negatively affect your child’s academic progress and require modifications to the curriculum in order to make progress. Effectively, special education is a different curriculum than is being provided in the regular classroom.

For example, a child with a hearing impairment who is doing well in the general education classroom might not qualify for an IEP.

Every IEP must contain specific goals and objectives based around the standards of learning and the child’s unique needs. A child with speech/language issues will likely have a goal specific to these needs. Another child with sensory issues might have occupational or physical therapy. Other child might see a special education teacher to work on math or reading or writing using a totally different set of curriculum materials than the general classroom teacher.

All IEPs are renewed annually and reevaluated every three years. When they are reevaluated, there is the possibility that services will be reduced or removed based on the progress of your child. This is more likely for students who have IEPs for mild disabilities or who already received most services in the general education classroom.

It is also important to note that IEPs expire upon graduation from high school OR when a student reaches 22 years of age. These do not carry over to college or the post-school world.IEP (1)

Takeaway: IEPs are for students who meet specific criteria which prevents progress in the general education curriculum, resulting in a special curriculum being designed for that child. IEPs change the regular curriculum.

504 Plan

This is a legal plan linked to section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Students who qualify for this also need to meet a few criteria:

  • must have a disability (physical or mental impairment) that limits one or more major life functions (think: reading, seeing, walking, etc.)
  • the disability must have been documented (think: medical and academic records)
  • the disability must be long term, and not temporary (think: visual impairment vs broken leg)
  • the disability must be shown of impair the child’s ability to function in the general education setting.

504 Plans differ from IEPs in that there is not limit to which types of disabilities qualify. 504 Plans also do not change the curriculum and teaching be delivered, just the components of the environment where the teaching happens. So, a student with a 504 Plan won’t be pulled out to received teaching using a special curriculum. This child might, however, receive specially designed graphic organizers, preferential seating, large print textbooks.

Essentially: the curriculum doesn’t change, the environment does.

Also unlike IEPs, there are no formal goals and objectives to meet and track each year. Instead, there is a list of accommodations (not modifications, which mean changes to the curriculum), support services (speech, OT, PT, counseling, etc.) and the people providing the services, and the name of the person in charge of implementing the 504 Plan.

Since 504 Plans are enshrined in the Rehabilitation Act, they are part of the Americans with Disabilities Act as well. This is the same act that requires public buildings have ramps, and that signs also be printed in Braille.

In other words, 504 Plans don’t go away after high school. This type of plan carries over for life. In college, it can provide alternate testing environments or extra time on tests (or whatever the specific accommodations are on your specific 504 Plan).IEP (2)

Takeaways: 504 Plans are for students who have a physical or mental impairment that prevents them from fully participating/learning in the general education setting, unless accommodations are put in place that change the environment or appearance of the curriculum materials. 504 Plans extend beyond high school.

Which one is for my child?

So, this gets dicey since there is a lot of emotion riding on this. During the whole process, it is important to look at your child (or student) objectively. See the child for who s/he is.

It is also important to know that a 504 Plan is not a “loss.” Your child will be getting services, but in a way that better serves their needs. And an IEP or “label” is not terrible either. It is a program designed to help your child succeed.

Another thing to note is that IEPs and 504 Plans are not magic that fix any and all academic programs. Kids, humans, operate on a spectrum. Not everyone learns to read at the same time, in the same way. The same applies for all aspects of academics and life: math, social skills, writing, life skills, fine and gross motor skills.

So, if your child is struggling in math (or anything) before you immediately jump to the IEP, consider other options.

If you have questions about IEPs or 504 Plans, please email me at or comment here!


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