The Difference Between IEP and 504 Plans and How to Obtain Them

The start of a new school year can bring a long list of to-dos. Shopping for school supplies, getting haircuts, and making sure that the first day of school outfit is set and ready to go. For parents with kids with disabilities, sometimes adjusting or obtaining an IEP or 504 is also on the list. But how do you know if your child qualifies for an IEP or 504? And how do you go about obtaining one?

Both IEPs (Individualized Education Program) and 504 plans can offer accommodations for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade. However, in order to qualify for an IEP, the student must have one of the thirteen types of disabilities listed in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The disability categories IDEA lists are:

  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
    • This is defined as conditions that limit a student’s strength, energy, or alertness.

A 504’s definition of a disability is a lot broader than the one defined by IDEA. To qualify for a 504, a child must have a disability that limits one or more basic life activities, including learning, reading, communicating, and thinking. Because of this, a child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP may qualify for a 504 plan and benefit from accommodations to support them on their education path.

So, what is the difference between an IEP and 504 plan?

The short answer is that an IEP is very specific, requires detailed evaluations of the student, and can be a lengthy process to obtain; whereas a 504 plan is not as formally structured and can be more easily obtained for a wider range of students based on their needs.

IEP

An IEP is written documentation that describes services the school will provide and sets specific learning goals for the student. It will include the child’s present levels of functional and academic performance, information regarding when services start, how long they last, and how often they will occur, any modifications to what the child is expected to learn, and if the child will participate in standardized tests or be included in school activities and general education classes.

An IEP also has legal requirements regarding who is included on the student’s IEP team. The IEP team creates the IEP for the student. An IEP team must include the student’s parent or caregiver, at least one of the student’s general education teachers, at least one special education teacher, a specialist who can interpret evaluation results (typically a school psychologist), and a district representative with authority over special education services.

504 Plan

Unlike an IEP, a 504 does not have to be a written document. There isn’t a standard 504 plan but typically a 504 plan includes specific supports, services, and accommodations a student will receive, the name of the person who is responsible for ensuring the implementation of the plan, and the names of the people who will provide each service. A 504 plan is more of an agreement with the school to provide specific accommodations that will benefit the student so they can better achieve academic standards.

A 504 plan has less specific rules on who is included on the 504 team. Generally, a 504 plan is created by a team of people who understand the evaluation data, services, and who are familiar with the student. This can include the student’s parent or caregiver, the school principal, and general and special education teachers.

How do you setup a 504 plan or IEP for your student?

Due to the broader scope and eligibility requirements of a 504 plan, the process of obtaining one tends to be a little more straight forward. Below are the steps to take to obtain a 504 plan.

  • Document the student’s needs.
    • This includes providing records of a medical diagnosis, report cards, private evaluations, and schoolwork.
  • Get the contact information of the school’s 504 coordinator
    • Typically this is found on the school website but you can also ask the school principal for the information.
  • Write a request for a 504 plan
    • Understood.org provides a great template here
  • Go through the evaluation process
    • Though this process isn’t as intricate as the evaluation process for an IEP, the school may still want to talk to the parent/caregiver about the student, review documentation, observe the student, and talk to the student’s teachers.
  • Find out if the child qualifies
    • Typically the school will meet with you after the evaluation process to decide if the student qualifies for a 504 plan.
  • Work with a 504 team to create the 504 plan
    • If the student qualifies for a 504 plan, a 504 team will be put in place to create the plan. Though a written plan isn’t required, most schools will create one. Understood.org provides an example of a 504 plan template here.

Because an IEP has stricter requirements and procedures to be followed, the IEP process can be a bit more complex. The steps for obtaining an IEP are:

  • Request an evaluation
    • You may either request the school evaluate your student for free or pay to have an evaluation done privately. To request an evaluation through the school you can follow the steps below.
      • Ask a teacher or the principal who and where to send a request for an evaluation to.
      • The request needs to be in writing. Make sure you are specific about why you are requesting the evaluation. Understood.org has a sample letter you may use as a template here.
  • Make sure to include in your letter that you consent to the student being evaluated and ask for a “Consent to Evaluate” form to sign.
  • Hand deliver or send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested.
  • If you haven’t heard back within 5 days, follow up with the school. Emailing the school is recommended since it will provide documentation.
  • Attend the eligibility meeting
    • Once the student has been evaluated and the results have been received, the IEP team will set an eligibility meeting for you to participate in. If the team finds that the student is eligible, you will proceed to working with the team to develop an IEP plan. If the team finds that the student does not meet eligibility for an IEP, they may suggest an 504 plan instead.
  • Work with the IEP team to create an IEP plan for the student

 

Overall, both IEP and 504 plans provide accommodations for students with disabilities and can make a world of difference in the academic success and confidence of a student. For more information on IEP and 504 plans visit Understood.org or https://sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b