What’s the Difference Between a 504 Plan and an IEP?
Both 504 plans and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are designed to support your child and remove barriers, giving them access to a quality education. But there are some subtle and not-so-subtle differences between them. As you think through which one may be most appropriate for your child, consider what services or accommodations they need. Does your child need support to access their school or classroom, or do they need specialized education? To help you through the process, we talked with special education attorney Grace Clark and Undivided’s Education Advocate, Lisa Carey.
Are there differences between a 504 plan and an IEP?
While IEPs and 504 plans are both used to support children with disabilities in the classroom, they do not pull authority from the same laws.
An IEP is the method by which a child receives a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) and individualized special education services as described in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To qualify for an IEP, a child must have one of 13 qualifying diagnoses. Through an IEP, your child can be provided accommodations and services like speech and occupational therapy, extra time to complete assignments, or preferred seating in the classroom (to name a few; here are more examples of accommodations for 504s and IEPs).
On the other hand, 504 plans are supported by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights statute. It was written to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. Grace Clark explains, “The way it applies to schools is that it levels the playing field. If a child has a disability and it impairs their ability to get an education, the school—under a 504 plan—can give them accommodations and sometimes services that make their access to education the same as their non-disabled peers.”
Accommodations provided under a 504 plan are designed to give children with disabilities access to the learning environment. Assistance carrying books, assistive technology devices, or materials with enlarged print are all examples of accommodations that can be provided through a 504 plan. To qualify, a child must have a disability that interferes with learning in their general education classroom.
Clark adds, “There’s more structure to an IEP document: requirements for who is on the IEP team, what kinds of assessments are used, and how often the IEP team meets — all of that is written out with requirements. A 504 plan is less structured but might apply to more situations.”
Lisa Carey explains, “A 504 plan should be updated or reviewed yearly, but there is no required attendee list for a 504; it is up to the school or district.” She suggests requesting that the child’s teacher attend at a minimum.
Clark tells us that every state and district handles 504 plans a little differently. A 504 coordinator or a school counselor could be the point person, but it may vary. She also tells us that not every school will perform a full assessment every three years, so it is a good idea to contact your school to learn their specific policies.
Other ways IEPs and 504 plans are different include the following:
- An IEP team will develop educational goals for a student, but a 504 plan will not.
- A parent is a crucial IEP team member, but as Carey tells us, “A 504 plan does not require the parents to participate.” A parent’s expected involvement largely depends on the school district's policy.
- An IEP can be enforced through due process, but a 504 does not have this protection.
- A 504 plan doesn’t require a child’s present levels of performance (PLOP), while an IEP does. (Read more about the key parts of an IEP here.)
How do I know which plan is right for my child?
Which document your child will most benefit from depends on their unique needs. According to Carey, a 504 is sufficient when a child needs support accessing the learning environment or content. A 504 plan will typically only cover accommodations and, in some cases, services. On the other hand, as Clark tells us, a child who needs “either specialized academic instruction or to be in a special education classroom will probably need an IEP.”
Clark adds, “Every child is different. Every situation is different. But an IEP does provide more as far as protections for the child. So, generally speaking, if you qualify for an IEP, you would get everything you could get from the 504, plus other things — it’s more comprehensive.”
If you’re unsure whether your child needs a 504 plan or an IEP, Clark suggests contacting the school for support. She says, “A parent can request that their child be assessed, which will provide information about the type of supports their child needs. From there, the parent and school can discuss whether an IEP or 504 would be more appropriate."
Can my child have both a 504 plan and an IEP?
Can I convert my child’s IEP to a 504 plan?
“It’s great if a child doesn’t need an IEP anymore because that means that the IEP has worked,” Clark says. However, that doesn’t mean a student would no longer need or benefit from some accommodations. In that case, it is possible to request a 504 plan.
Carey tells us, “In order to exit a child from an IEP, assessments need to be done to show that the need for specialized instruction is no longer there. A 504 for accommodations, like more time on tests, can be set up by requesting it in writing. You can also request it at the final IEP meeting.” (Read about how to request an IEP meeting here.) Once a 504 is requested in writing, your child will need to go through the entire process, even if they’ve been assessed for an IEP. The school might conduct an assessment or accept medical documentation, like a letter from your child’s doctor. A meeting will be held and at that time, the school will determine if they believe assessments are necessary.
Did we answer all your questions about 504 plans and IEPs? What other questions do you have? Let us know!