When a child needs help educationally there are two choices, a 504 Plan and an IEP. Both can provide accommodations and supports but the only one allows for special education services and specialized instruction.
There’s a lot of really specific legalese used to answer the who, what, where, when, why, and how. I’m not a lawyer, I don’t practice law or give legal advice, I’m a parent first and I’m going to talk like a parent. We’ll cover the key differences and point you in the right direction to get more info.
There are 2 separate laws: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Section 504 is a civil rights law that protects individuals with disabilities against discrimination and provides the same access to education their typical peers would have. It’s designed to remove barriers and level the playing field. So, a 504 Plan wouldn’t change what a child learns but how they learn it.
IDEA ensures that a child meeting the criteria for special education receives a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) through an Individualized Education Program or IEP. The IEP provides special education services, which may include some of the same accommodations as a 504 plan. An IEP also includes goals, specialized instruction, modifications, related services, and specified placement in order to prepare a child for their future.
So in a nutshell, if education was a book on a tall shelf a 504 Plan would be a stepstool to reach it and an IEP would bring the book down, open it, set goals and benchmarks with a way to track your progress, maybe change the text to pictures, read it to you, explain in alternate concepts, break it down in smaller easier to read books, etc…
A 504 Plan requires the student to have a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities or have a record of such impairment or be regarded to have such an impairment. The 504 Plan can be in place throughout a person’s academic lifetime regardless of age and can transfer into college and technical schools.
An IEP requires a formal evaluation process which includes educational testing and other assessments. The child needs to have a diagnosed disability and the disability needs to adversely impact the child’s ability to learn. There are 13 named learning disabilities that can cover physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral which are used to qualify the child. A child with an IEP can be covered from preschool, age three, through high school graduation or their 22nd birthday.
It is important to note that a diagnosed disability does not guarantee an IEP. For example, ADHD is one of the 13 diagnoses covered under Other Health Impairments in IDEA, some children with ADHD might not require any special education services in order to access their education. In that case, a 504 might be used for accommodations like a quiet testing environment or additional time for assignments.
One interesting area where 504 Plans and IEPs differ is parental involvement. While both require parental notification, only the IEP requires parents to be involved in the process.
For an IEP a parent is considered an equal team member and must be involved in the design and decision-making process. Parents must be invited to participate in all meetings, they also have rights and protections when they disagree with a proposed change to the IEP. IEP meetings are required to be held at the minimum every year in order to review and renew the IEP. A parent may also request and be granted a meeting at any time deemed necessary.
While a school must notify parents of decisions and changes to their child’s 504 Plan and a parent may provide input, they are not required to invite the parent to the meeting or grant meeting requests outside of normally scheduled meetings. There is also no hard and fast rule as to how often the 504 plan is reviewed, the law only states periodical review which is normally annually.
While both an IEP and 504 are legally enforceable, only the IEP is required to be a written document that contains specific areas of information. Contrarily, the 504 Plan only has to have the accommodations on record, not in an actual document.
If you suspect your child is struggling in school, or if your child has a diagnosed disability you can request an educational evaluation. The evaluation will determine if your child is eligible for an IEP or if a 504 Plan can be used to assist in your child’s education.
Regardless of the type of support received, you can and should have a voice in your child’s education.
You DO NOT have to navigate the process alone. There are resources and services available to guide and support you through the special education journey.
Diana is a special needs mother, Master IEP Coach®, and founder of Special Education Advocacy LLC. She lives in SW Pennsylvania with her husband Jeff, three sons and granddaughter where she works from her home office serving clients across the US.
Years of climbing through the rubble of a broken special education system to get her son the supports and services he needed fueled her passion for advocacy. Diana vowed to use her personal experience and specialized training to change the course for other families.
Diana has a strong background in placement issues and believes in a collaborative approach to working with the IEP team. She is committed to providing honest and supportive coaching, consultation, and advocacy for parents 1:1 and in groups, as well as training for team members and support staff in order to design and implement appropriate IEPs that are as individualized as the child they serve.