What’s the difference between an IEP (individualized education plan) and a 504 plan?  The laws and rules regarding academic accommodations, IEPs, and 504 plans can be very confusing for parents.

As a parent, you have enough to worry about so I’m going to help answer a very common question that you probably have: What’s the difference between an IEP and 504 plan?

Before I explain the differences, I’m going to provide a brief overview of both of these laws.

What’s an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?

IEPs exist thanks to a piece of legislation called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA ensures that students with a disability are provided with free appropriate public education that is tailored to their individual needs.  The goal is to provide students with disabilities the same opportunities for education as students without disabilities.

IDEA requires that public schools create an IEP for each student that is eligible to receive these services under federal and state disability standards.

What disabilities can qualify for an IEP?

IDEA covers kids from birth through high school graduation or age 21 (whichever comes first).  Not every student with learning or attention issues qualifies for special education.

IDEA does not cover college students.

To qualify for an IEP, a student’s disability needs to directly impact the student’s education and needs to fall into one of the 13 disability categories that IDEA covers:

To be eligible for services one of these disabilities must be present and the disability needs to be impacting their performance in school.

That basically means that just because a student has one of these disabilities doesn’t mean that they can get services under IDEA.

What are the benefits of an IEP?

The IEP does three things for a student:

  1. It specifies how the disability is impacting the student’s academic performance
  2. It specifies the special education services that will be offered
  3. It outlines how often services are offered to the student

An IEP allows a school to create a program of services that are tailored for the student’s specific needs.

Services can include individualized education, accommodations like extended time on tests, language therapy, or access to assistive technology.

The IEP must be designed so that it meets the educational requirements of the student in the least restrictive environment that is required for that student.

What’s does Least Restrictive Environment Mean?

IEPs allow students to have access to special education classes but they don’t always require that the student be in a special education class.  Special education is a service not a location.

That’s where the Least Restrictive Environment comes in.

Least restrictive environment is a complicated way of saying that the student needs to be in an environment with their peers to the maximum extent possible.

For example, if a student has ADHD and it is impacting their education, they can be allowed a classroom aide to help keep them on task.

In this case, the student can continue to stay in the same classroom as their peers while at the same time have access to a classroom aide to help them stay focused.

What’s a 504 Plan?

504 plans exist thanks to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

This is a federal law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability.  The non-discriminatory components of the law apply to employers and organizations that receive financial assistance from the federal government.

This law goes beyond schools and covers employers and organizations.

Section 504 prevents organizations and employers from denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.

This law is broad and covers people who have mental or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities.

How does Section 504 apply to students?

A 504 plan outlines how a school will provide services and remove barriers for a student with a disability.

Some students don’t need special education or individualized instruction like they would get in an IEP.

A 504 plan provides accommodations in a general education classroom.  If a student needs specialized instruction, they must have an IEP.

504 plans help level the playing field for students by giving students with disabilities access to the same education that their peers are getting.

In rare cases, a 504 plan can also provide modifications.  Modifications change what a student is taught or expected to learn.  For example, students might get fewer homework assignments or they might be graded differently than their peers.

They help students by giving them accommodations such as extended time on tests or the ability to leave the classroom for a break.  The school creates the 504 plan but there are no set rules for what a 504 plan needs to look like.

You can look at some sample 504 plans here.

How can a student get a 504 plan?

A 504 Plan is not part of special education and serves a different purpose than an IEP.

The student stays in their general education classes and gets accommodations to help remove barriers to learning.

Since a student does not have to qualify for special education, the process to get a 504 plan is much simpler than an IEP.

Every school district has its own policies and procedures on how to get a 504 plan. You should contact your school’s 504 coordinators for more information.

Typically, they look at information from several sources including psychological testing, medical diagnoses, student’s grades, test scores, and recommendations from teachers.

What are the differences between an IEP and 504 Plan?

IEP and 504 plans are part of federal laws that were created to help students learn, overcome barriers due to their disabilities, and thrive in school.  They have the following things in common:

  • They are both mandated by federal laws
  • They help provide accommodations at no cost
  • School districts are required to evaluate or pay for the student to be evaluated by a psychologist or physician depending on the disability
  • Parents are involved throughout the process
  • Parents can request changes to a plan at any time
  • Students are reassessed every 3 years
  • Parents can resolve disputes through mediation or lawsuits

Parents often wonder which one is better for their child.  The best thing to do is to speak to your school district’s IEP and 504 coordinators and work with them to make that decision.

In the meantime, I’ve included some comparisons below to help you make that decision.


The laws and rules regarding academic accommodations, individualized education plans (IEP), and 504 plans can be very confusing for parents. Hopefully, this article helped clear things up for you.

IEP and 504 plans are part of federal laws that were created to help students learn, overcome barriers due to their disabilities, and thrive in school.

Your child’s school should have an IEP or 504 coordinators to help you figure out which plan is better for your child.

Do you have any questions?

Schedule your free 20 minute phone consultation today!

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