IEP vs. 504 Plan: Understanding the Difference for Your Child

IEP vs 504 Plan

As a parent, you want your child to thrive in school. If they have a disability that impacts their education, you may hear about 504 plans and IEPs as ways to help. 

But what’s the difference between these two commonly referenced—yet often confused—accommodations?

In this article, our special education lawyers break down the distinct purposes of 504 plans and IEPs. We’ll also look at eligibility criteria, how to obtain each one for your child, and when it may make sense to have both.

What is a 504 Plan?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal law that protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination, including in school settings. Under this law, schools must provide eligible students with 504 plans to guarantee equal access to public education.

A 504 plan outlines accommodations, modifications, and other services so the student can fully participate in general education classes and activities.

To qualify for a 504 plan, students must have a disability or impairment, and that disability must impair a major life activity that hinders the child’s ability to learn or perform in the classroom.

What is an IEP?

An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, stems from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This federal law mandates that public schools provide eligible students with disabilities a free, appropriate public education tailored to their unique needs.

The IEP outlines the special education instruction, related services, accommodations, and other support the student is required to make meaningful progress in school.

To qualify for an IEP, the student must have one of the thirteen disabilities outlined in IDEA, and the disability must affect the child’s education performance and/or ability to learn or benefit from the curriculum.

Key Differences Between 504 Plans and IEPs

While 504 plans and IEPs are both meant to help students with disabilities, there are important distinctions:

  • A 504 plan guarantees equal access to education but does not provide individualized services. An IEP specifically outlines required services tailored to the student.
  • To qualify for a 504 plan, the student’s major life activity of learning must be substantially limited. An IEP requires the disability to impact educational performance.
  • 504 plans generally address accessibility related to one major life domain. IEPs can cover academics, social skills, behavioral needs, physical requirements, and more.
  • 504 plans do not provide modified curriculum or specialized instruction like an IEP.
  • Eligibility for 504 plans is broader than for IEPs. IEPs also require more assessment data and documentation.

While both are meant to help your child, they each serve distinct purposes for students with disabilities.

Which is Better for My Child?

Determining whether your child would benefit more from a 504 plan or an IEP depends on their unique needs:

  • Do they require individualized educational services/instruction? An IEP is likely better.
  • Are simple accommodations sufficient? A 504 plan may meet their needs.
  • Does their disability affect learning and other school activities? An IEP may address multiple needs.

Of course, the best way to decide what will support your child is to consult with their school team, doctors, private evaluators, and other professionals who understand their needs and abilities. Having input is invaluable when choosing between 504 and IEP options.

Can a Child Have Both a 504 Plan and an IEP?

Yes, in some circumstances. However, it’s very unlikely that your child would need both. 

This is because an IEP can provide everything a 504 plan offers, plus additional services and support. The extensive evaluations and eligibility requirements for an IEP ensure it fully addresses a child’s learning needs. The IEP provides customized goals, accommodations, therapies, and more based on the individual. 

A 504 plan is more general and limited in scope. Any accommodations or aids included in a 504 plan could simply be written into the more comprehensive IEP. Not to mention, navigating education plans for children with disabilities is already complex. Trying to manage both an IEP and a 504 plan would be extremely difficult and likely unnecessary.

The Bottom Line

504 plans and IEPs are two commonly used but very different accommodations for students with disabilities. Keep in mind every child’s needs are unique. 

By understanding all the options available, you can better advocate to get your child the right support.

If you have questions about getting a 504 plan, an IEP, or disputes with your school, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re here to help your child succeed in school and life. Contact us today to discuss your child’s education needs in more detail.

Author Bio

Kevin Piwowarski Shields

Kevin Shields

Kevin Shields is a Founding Member and Special Education Lawyer at Shields Law Firm, representing children and families in special needs matters throughout Texas. Before becoming a lawyer, Kevin worked as a general education teacher and fought for increased inclusion time for his students receiving services. He advocated for his students by calling out providers who missed sessions and was often the dissenting voice at the IEP table.

Kevin obtained his Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law School and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. He is admitted to practice law in Texas, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. He is also a member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) and holds memberships in the State Bar of Texas, focusing on School Law, Juvenile Law, and Child Protection Law. He is also a member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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