One of the most common questions I get from parents is, “What is the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan?”
IEPs and 504 plans are both plans to help children with diverse needs get extra support from their school district to help them achieve success.
An IEP is an Individualized Education Plan for children with disabilities. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities can get an IEP in their school district to receive a variety of services and accommodations and modifications in the school setting. Services include, but are not limited to, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language therapy, social work or counseling, and positive behavior intervention. Accommodations and modifications are the ways the school makes the learning environment work for your child, like providing him visual schedules and allowing sensory breaks (accommodations) or simplifying a project rubric and altering homework difficulty level (modifications).
In all cases, in order to receive services and accommodations and modifications, a school district must evaluate a child to confirm his eligibility. Eligibility guidelines for an IEP can be relatively strict; a child’s needs must fall under one of thirteen specific disability categories. When a child’s needs do not fit the strict guidelines of IDEA for an IEP, but they clearly warrant special support services in order for the child to successfully access FAPE (free and appropriate public education), a 504 plan is considered. The law that enables 504 plans (Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act) offers a broader definition of disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act calls for 504 plans for any students whose “mental or physical impairment...substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Therefore, if a child cannot get an IEP, that child may be eligible for a 504 instead.
So what is the difference between the two plans in practice? A 504 plan can provide students with virtually all of the same services and accommodations and modifications that an IEP can. However, unlike IEPs, which are legally binding written documents, 504 plans do not have to be written documents under the law. Therefore, in some circumstances, you may find that 504 plans are not necessarily executed with as much fidelity as one would like. Additionally, 504 plans do not have to have specific goals and objectives like IEPs that schools must track over time. A lack of documentation over time can lead to inconsistencies in support for a child as he changes from one classroom to another, year after year. However, in most districts, schools write and execute 504 plans with just as much fidelity as IEPs, though they typically lack goal-setting portions.* Most school districts I have worked with provide written 504 plans that are well documented over time and help students greatly.
School districts often administer 504 plans for milder disabilities easily ameliorated by basic accommodations and modifications. For example, often, students with ADHD as their only disability will receive a 504 plan because their needs can be met with accommodations and modifications and do not require significant support services such as physical or speech therapy.** A child with an allergy may get a 504 to create a crisis plan should he be exposed to his allergent. Another child may get a 504 as a temporary measure if she breaks her dominant arm. In that 504 plan, one might find accommodations such as extra time on written tests, using typing devices, or even temporary occupational therapy minutes. Simply put, a 504 plan is a way to get a child the support he or she needs for temporary disabilities, minor disabilities, or disabilities that do not fall under the IEP umbrella.
Parents often feel concerned to know for which of the two plans their child will be eligible. In most cases - as long as the school district provides written 504 plans - either plan is completely acceptable. It is not necessary to go into a district evaluation with a goal in mind of getting one or the other because both plans can provide the supports a child needs.
So, for which plan does your child qualify? Will he get an IEP or a 504? Contact me, and I can help you answer these questions next!
*Typically, students with behavior issues with 504 plans can still get Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) that schools track over time, mitigating that issue.
**Note to parents of children with ADHD! Just because your child takes medicine and therefore performs better in school does not mean he is no longer eligible for a 504 or IEP! A federal court ruled that, as January 2009, “mitigating measures” with “ameliorative effects” such as ADHD medication cannot be considered when determining if a child’s disability makes him eligible for services!