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Explained: Difference Between an IEP and 504 Plan

For parents new to the special education, the process can be overwhelming. One of the questions I am frequently asked is "what type of plan do I need for my child." The answer of course depends on the child's needs and their qualifying disability. For some children an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is appropriate, whereas for other 504 plans work better. I thought it would be useful to include a chart that compares both, which I've listed below.


504 Plan


What is it?

A blueprint or plan for a child’s special education experience at school

A blueprint or plan for how a child will have access to learning at school

What does it do?

Provides individualized special education and related services to meet the unique needs of the child

Provides services and changes to the learning environment to meet the needs of the child as adequately as other students.

What law applies?

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a federal special education law for children with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This is a federal civil rights law to stop discrimination against people with disabilities.

Who is eligible?

To get an IEP, there are 2 requirements:

  1. A child has one or more of the 13 specific disabilities listed in IDEA. Learning and attention issues may qualify.
  2. The disability must affect the child’s educational performance and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum, leading to the need for specialized instruction.

To get a 504 plan, there are 2 requirements:

  1. A child has any disability, which can include many learning or attention issues.
  2. The disability must interfere with the child’s ability to learn in a general education classroom. Section 504 has a broader definition of a disability than IDEA, stating the disability must substantially limit one or more basic life activities, such as learning.

Independent Educational Evaluation

Parents can ask the school district to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) by an outside expert. The district doesn’t have to agree.

Parents can pay for an outside evaluation themselves, but the district may not give it much weight.

If school requires IEE to determine eligibility for an IEP, the evaluation must be at no cost to the parent.

Doesn’t allow parents to ask for an IEE. Parents can pay for an outside evaluation themselves.

If school requires IEE to determine eligibility for an 504 Plan, the evaluation must be at no cost to the parent.

Who creates the plan?

An IEP is created by an IEP team that must include:

  • The child’s parent
  • At least one of the child’s general education teachers
  • At least one special education teacher
  • School psychologist or other specialist who can interpret evaluation results
  • A district representative with authority over special education services

With a few exceptions, the entire team must be present for IEP meetings.

A 504 plan is created by a team of people who are familiar with the child and who understand the evaluation data and special services options. This might include:

  • The child’s parent
  • General and special education teachers
  • The school principal

What's in the plan?

The IEP is a written document that sets learning goals for a child and describes the services the school will provide

The following are some of the most important things the IEP must include:

  • The child’s present levels of academic and functional performance—how he/she is currently doing in school
  • Annual education goals for the child and how the school will track her progress
  • The services the child will get—this may include special education, related, supplementary and extended school year services
  • The timing of services—when they start, how often they occur and how long they last
  • Any accommodations—changes to the child’s learning environment
  • Any modifications—changes to what the child is expected to learn or know
  • How the child will participate in standardized tests
  • How the child will be included in general education classes and school activities

There is no standard 504 plan. Unlike an IEP, a 504 plan doesn’t have to be a written document.

A 504 plan generally includes the following:

  • Specific accommodations, supports or services for the child
  • Names of who will provide each service
  • Name of the person responsible for ensuring the plan is implemented

What notice to parents is required?

When the school wants to change a child’s services or placement, it has to inform the parents in writing before the change. Prior written notice is also required for any IEP meetings and evaluations.

Parents also have “stay put” rights to keep services in place while there’s a dispute.

The school must notify parents about evaluation or a “significant change” in placement. Notice is not required to be in writing.

Is parent consent required?

A parent must provide written consent for the school to evaluate a child. Parents must also provide written consent before the school can provide services in an IEP.

A parent’s consent is required for the school district to evaluate a child.

How often is it reviewed and/or revised?

The IEP team must review an IEP at least once a year.

The student must be reevaluated every 3 years to determine whether services are still needed.

The rules vary by state. Generally, a 504 plan is reviewed each year and a reevaluation is done every 3 years or when needed.

How are disputes handled?

IDEA gives parents several specific ways to resolve disputes (usually in this order):

  • Mediation
  • Due process complaint
  • Resolution session
  • Civil lawsuit
  • State complaint
  • Lawsuit

Section 504 gives parents several options for resolving disagreements with the school:

  • Mediation
  • Alternative dispute resolution
  • Impartial hearing
  • Complaint to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)
  • Lawsuit

Knowing the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan is a big part of understanding what types of services are available to your child. If you have further questions about the special education process, please contact us at Exceptional Learners to find out how we can help you.