What are I.E.P and 504 Plans: Untangling the Web of Disability Services in the Education System

When you have a child with a developmental disability, the lingo can seem confusing and overwhelming.  Depending on your child’s diagnosis, he or she may qualify to receive either a “504 Plan” or an “Individualized Education Plan” or “IEP” as it is commonly referred to. 

I am often asked by parents what these are and what they mean, below is a guide for parents:

A 504 Plan refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which specifies that no one with a disability can be excluded from participating in federally funded programs or activities, including elementary, secondary or postsecondary schooling.  504 Plans spell out modifications and accommodations that will be needed for students to have an opportunity to perform at the same level as their peers and might include such things as an extra set of textbooks or a tape recorder for taking notes.  An “Individualized Education Plan” or “IEP”  spells out exactly what special education services your child will receive and why.  It will include your child’s classification, placement, services such as a one-on-one aide and therapies, academic and behavioral goals, a behavior plan if needed, percentage of time in regular education, and progress reports from teachers and therapists.  The IEP is tailored specifically to your child’s needs and is planned at an IEP meeting at your child’s school.  The difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP is that a 504 Plan, which falls under civil-rights law, is an attempt to remove barriers and allow students with disabilities to participate freely.  The 504 Plan seeks to level the playing field so that those students can safely pursue the same opportunities as everyone else.  An IEP, which falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is much more concerned with actually providing educational services.  Students eligible for an IEP represent a small subset of all students with disabilities.  They generally require more than a level playing field; (SEMICOLON) they require significant remediation and assistance, and are more likely to work on their own level at their own pace even in an inclusive classroom.  

Only certain classifications of disability are eligible for an IEP.  Students who do not meet those classifications but still require some assistance to be able to participate fully in school would be candidates for a 504 Plan.  The neuropsychologist is there to help guide you through this process.  He or she will help you determine if your child should receive any of these accommodations or services and will attend school meetings with you to advocate for your child’s benefit if necessary.  It is very important to note that only public schools, and not private schools, are required to provide these types of services.  Part of your decision process after receiving a diagnosis may be deciding which type of school your child will attend.  This process can seem overwhelming, but IEPs and 504 Plans serve to best help your child achieve his or her maximum potential.

Recently, The Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center (PEATC) announced the development of an IEP Checklist iPhone application.  For more information see: http://www.peatc.org/peatc.cgim?template=iPhonePressReleaseKit.

If you have attended an IEP or 504, what are some tips you can give to parents who are new to the “IEP/504 World”?

8 replies
  1. maureen evans
    maureen evans says:

    Dear Teri,
    Your article is fantastic! It really de-mystifies and thoroughly explains the difference between the 504 and the IEP. So useful for worried parents!

  2. Marissa
    Marissa says:

    Dr. Hull,
    Your article gives such a concise and easy to understand explanation of 504’s and IEP’s. I have found that it is crucial for families to have an advocate with them as they are going through this process. Not only to help them navigate their way, but also to make sure that their child is getting the appropriate services in general, to make sure that he/she is getting the appropriate duration of services, and especially to make sure that these services and accommodations are in fact being implemented, and implemented correctly. It’s relieving to know that someone is on your side and is going to help you fight for what’s best for your child.

  3. Deborah Michael
    Deborah Michael says:

    We also have to remember that the schools are not necessarily our enemies. It is just that the school staff does not have the time or resources sometimes to advocate for the parents and sit and explain the lingo or the law and that is where an advocate can help. We dont necessarily need to protect, but to be a valuable part of the IEP team. We all have the same goals, to help the child get to his/her ultimate potential.

  4. Greg Stasi
    Greg Stasi says:

    Yes, good points Deborah. The reality of the situation is that the IEP should serve as a source of relief for parents. Everyone is there for one purpose and that is to ensure that the child gets the best accommodations possible. More times then not, when I go to an IEP meeting the school staff is looking for guidance as to how to work with the particular child in order for him or her to perform to actual ability.


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  3. […] ensure that the same services can be implemented within the classroom setting.  If a child has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or 504 Plan established, the parent and teacher conference serves as a great means to discuss how effective the […]

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