504 Plans & IEPs – What’s the Difference?

In-school services for students with disabilities have come a long way in the past few decades. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, public school districts are required by law to provide a student with the resources he or she needs to learn. However, schools often have trouble affording that assistance and sometimes only meet the bare minimum standards to be in IDEA compliance. The IDEA was a huge step in the right direction for students with disabilities, but its application in the past ten years has room for improvement. 

The cornerstone of the IDEA is the creation of IEPs, or individualized education plans, which outline the accommodations a student with learning disabilities requires in order to assist him or her in succeeding in school. In order to receive special education services, a child must have an IEP on record with the school, and a public school is required to provide the services that are recommended for the student regardless of cost.

Getting a child on an IEP is, unfortunately, a complicated, multi-step task. First, the child must be evaluated by a medical professional in order to attain a learning disability diagnosis. If the child is found eligible for disability services, then the parents, student (if old enough), the special education team, and regular education teachers meet to create a plan to better serve the needs of the child. This meeting is where the plans for the IEP are outlined. Once the IEP is written by a licensed psychologist or language therapist (depending on the nature of the disability), the child can begin receiving services. The student’s progress is monitored and re-evaluated each year, and changes can be made to the IEP if necessary. The trouble with IEPs is that they must be truly individualized while not only maintaining the integrity of students’ educations, but also keeping them in the “least restrictive environment” possible for learning. If that means keeping students in the classroom for most or all of the school day and providing them with an aid, then that is what the school must do. If that means pulling them out for part or even all of the school day to work one-on-one with special education teachers, then the school must provide said accommodations.  

An alternative to an IEP is a 504 plan, referencing section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: the first legislation that required schools to assist students with disabilities. A 504 plan is best for students with an identified learning disability and/or ADHD who do not qualify for an IEP under the IDEA. A 504 plan has a less stringent definition of a disability than an IEP and thus may be a better option for a student who does not feel significantly or severely impacted by his or her diagnosed learning disability. Potential accommodations in a 504 plan include prolonged test taking time, different or extended deadlines for long term papers or projects, and having an independent note taker for certain classes. A 504 plan, like an IEP, must be re-evaluated every year to verify that the provisions assigned to the student are helping him or her succeed. The goal of IEPs and 504 plans is to give students with learning disabilities the tools they need to succeed. While the process is lengthy (and, at times, complex and bureaucratic), the intended outcome is a fair educational experience for all students. 

About the Author

Stacy A. Padula is an educational mentor and Internationally Certified tutor from the South Shore of Massachusetts with years of experience assisting parents and coaching students throughout the college application process. She is the author of the Montgomery Lake High book series, available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, which addresses teenage social issues. 

Published by Author Stacy A. Padula

Stacy Padula has spent the last 14 years working daily with teenagers as a college counselor, mentor, and life coach. She was named "Top Inspirational Author of the Year" for 2022 by the International Association of Top Professionals (New York, NY). In 2021, she was broadcast on the famous Reuters Building in Times Square as "Empowered Woman of the Year." Her Gripped book series is currently being adapted for TV by Emmy-winning producer Mark Blutman. She is the founder and CEO of Briley & Baxter Publications: a publishing company that donates a portion of its proceeds to animal rescues each month. She has edited and published a variety of titles, including Boston Bruins Anthem Singer Todd Angilly and Rachel Goguen's The Adventures of Owen & the Anthem Singer, LaTonya Pinkard of Netflix's Last Chance U's Nate & His Magic Lion, and former NHL player Norm Beaudin's memoir The Original: Living Life Through Hockey. Stacy resides in Plymouth, Massachusetts with her husband Tim and two miniature dachshunds, Briley and Baxter.