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504 versus IEP-which one and why?

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

There are two main protections for students with learning differences and special needs who attend public school. The first is a 504 plan and the second is an IEP. How does a parent know which one to select and why? Here's a breakdown of the differences and how they might support your child.


An IEP is an Individualized Education Plan. The IEP process is regulated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. A child may be eligible for an IEP if they are deemed to qualify for one of the 13 categories outlined in the law AND need services in order to be successful in school. The 13 categories are

  • Specific Learning Disability (in reading, math, or writing, including dyslexia)

  • Other Health Impairment (a health issue that could interfere with learning, such as ADHD)

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Emotional Disturbance (now called EBD by schools, emotional and/or behavioral disturbance)

  • Speech and Language Impairment

  • Visual Impairment (including blindness)

  • Deafness

  • Hearing Impairment)

  • Deaf and Blind

  • Orthopedic Impairment (such as cerebral palsy)

  • Intellectual Disability

  • Traumatic Brain Injury

  • Multiple Disabilities

SLD, OHI, and ASD are the most common reasons why students are on an IEP.

In order to qualify for an IEP, a child has to go through a cognitive and academic assessment so that school personnel can determine if the presence of a disability exists and to what extent and in what areas a child needs supports and services. In the case of physical disabilities, they obviously cannot assess for that but would take medical records to document that and then still do cognitive and academic testing to determine needs.

Schools should now use a strengths and challenges approach coupled with a record of response to intervention, but some schools and districts are still holding on to the old and outdated discrepancy model, which is when they find a discrepancy between ability and achievement. In the strengths model, the school psychologist will evaluate all of the testing data and outline that child's areas of cognitive strength and areas of weakness. They will then look at a history of interventions to see if the child responded as expected to these interventions. If they did and continue to do so, then an IEP would not be needed because they are succeeding with the supports included in the regular school program. However, if they have not responded as expected, then it would demonstrate that the child needs additional supports. For example, if a child has been in reading pull-out for two years but is still far behind their peers, then that child clearly needs more intensive support and may need an IEP.

Once qualified for special education services, an IEP meeting is held and goals, objectives, supports, and services are all set up for the child with the family's input. This is a formal document and the school is required by law to implement it AS WRITTEN. Supports and services will be outlined specifically with times, number of times per week, etc.

THE 504

504 Plans get their name from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This is a civil rights law and gives people with disabilities equal access to all government services, including public education. 504 plans are meant to give students with disabilities equal access to all parts of the school day.

A 504 plan is less involved and less formal than an IEP and does not list specific goals and services. The 504 plan is most commonly used for ADHD but is geared toward any child who has a physical or mental impairment that might inhibit their success in public school. This could include being wheelchair-bound, having epilepsy, or being insulin-dependent. These conditions might require accommodations in the school program but not necessarily academic goals and objectives.

In order to qualify for a 504, a student must have a “qualifying disability that substantially limits a major life activity.” A child must have a qualifying disability that substantially limits their ability to do something and impacts major life activities such as concentrating, walking, communicating, or taking care of themselves.

504s are generally 1-2 page documents, unlike an IEP which is usually 15-20. They are still a legal document and must be implemented but they do tend to hold less weight in the school system. The requirements for who develops them and how are much looser than an IEP. Both are reviewed annually. One important difference is that 504s also cover college education, while IEPs are prek-12 only.

Which One Does My Child Need?

If your child's needs are not directly affecting their academics, you do not need an IEP. For example, if a child wore a hearing aid and needed special seating and visual supports for certain classes, then that would be a good case for a 504.

If your child requires specialized instruction, such as pull-out for reading with a reading specialist or regular accommodations or modifications on assignments, then an IEP is the way to go. In other words, if their disability prevents them from accessing the general education curriculum with regular supports and services, the child needs an IEP.

If your child will require services such as speech, OT, or work with the school psychologist, they must have an IEP.

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