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IEP vs 504 Plan: The Differences You Need to Know

by Emily Stone, LICSW and Lead Clinical Strategist at Mightier

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When considering an IEP vs 504 for your child, there are certain things you should know. Learn more about how IEPs and 504s compare.

Regular Education vs. Special Education (or ESE)

The most important distinction between an IEP and 504 plan is that an IEP (Individualized Education Program) falls under special education. Conversely, 504 plans are a regular education initiative. In fact, the two types of plans derive from a different set of laws altogether. IEPs come from IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) which is a federal special education law. 504s come from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law intended to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. Differences in regular education and special education also affect the eligibility process and the level of support received through an IEP vs a 504.  Overall, IEPs have more specific rules and stricter legal requirements than 504s.

IEP vs 504: Qualifying for a Plan

In public education, both IEP and 504 plans have specific eligibility criteria. But the eligibility process is more involved for an IEP than a 504. Special education services from IEPs require a formal evaluation conducted by the school psychologist. Then an IEP team of professionals uses the evaluation to help determine eligibility for an ESE (Exceptional Student Education) program. There are many types of special education programs, including special education services focused on Specific Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Emotional/Behavioral Disability. Kids also have to demonstrate a need for specialized instruction and related services to qualify for an IEP. A formal evaluation by the school may not be needed for a 504, although school districts  differ in their requirements. In some cases, it is sufficient for the  child’s parents to provide documentation of a qualifying diagnosis of a health impairment from their child’s doctor for their child to receive specific accommodations. Kids who don’t qualify for an IEP may qualify for a 504. However, a child cannot have an IEP and a 504 at the same time. IEPs supersede 504s.

Level of Support

IEPs and 504s offer formalized help for students with disabilities. Both plans usually include specific accommodations to level the playing field in the general education classroom, such as extra time for assignments and tests and other related services. From there, you’ll find several important distinctions between the two. The IEP is more involved than a 504. Typically, 504 plans must be reevaluated every school year and are implemented only by the classroom teacher to address a child’s unique needs and improve their educational performance. IEPs take the plan further, dictating specific educational learning goals and assistance with life activities provided by ESE professionals. IEPs also require extensive documentation and reevaluation at IEP meetings. The paperwork can be 10-20 pages or more from a single meeting. This chart provides a helpful side by side comparison of IEPs and 504s.

If you think your child needs extra help at school, contact their teacher or school counselor for more information.

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