IEPs vs. 504 Plans: How Do They Differ?

When working toward the academic and socioemotional success of your student, it’s important to find appropriate support strategies. For students with learning differences, there are two in-school options that can provide the assistance your student may need: an IEP or a 504 plan.

At their core, both IEPs and 504 plans exist to help students access academic accommodations. Each option is intended to protect and support students with learning differences and to allow them to thrive academically. However, IEPs and 504 plans differ in many ways, including the qualifications that must be met in order to utilize each and the implementation of both options.

Keep reading to learn more about IEPs vs. 504 plans and how they differ.

1. The qualifications that a student must meet to apply for an IEP vs. a 504 plan

When researching IEPs and 504 plans, you might quickly note the qualification differences between the two options. With 504 plans, students with a range of learning differences qualify, so long as the learning difference affects a major portion of their life—in this case, their schooling. 504 plans benefit students who can learn in their current academic environment (in other words, the classroom) given the addition of specific modifications. A child who is recovering from a serious illness or injury (such as a broken arm or diabetes) is one example of an individual who may benefit from a 504 plan.

An IEP, in contrast, requires that students’ learning differences qualify under one of 13 categories. Having an IEP allows students to work with parents and school staff to create an in-depth accommodation plan detailing the required special education services to be utilized. Students must qualify in one of the following categories established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA):

  • Autism

  • Deaf-blindness

  • Deafness

  • Emotional disturbance

  • Hearing impairment

  • Intellectual disability

  • Multiple disabilities

  • Orthopedic impairment

  • Other health impairments, such as ADHD

  • Specific learning disability, such as dyscalculia, dysgraphia, or dyslexia

  • Speech or language impairment

  • Visual impairment, such as blindness

  • Traumatic brain injury

It’s important to note that having one of these disabilities doesn’t automatically qualify an individual for an IEP. In order to qualify, a student’s academic learning environment must be directly affected by the disability. Once you have a sense of whether your student qualifies for an IEP or a 504 plan, the next step is to work with a designated team through your school or school district to prepare a plan of action.

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2. The benefits and implementation of IEPs vs. 504 plans

It’s impossible to say whether an IEP or a 504 plan is more beneficial, as both options provide a unique set of benefits to each individual student. Students with an IEP who require more intensive accommodations—including one-on-one time with individuals like reading specialists—can benefit from the special education resources available to them. These services vary by school and district, but they generally provide a higher level of individualized educational support.

Students with a 504 plan are able to create a list of modifications to specific aspects of their schooling that are directly impacted by their disability. This option provides a great benefit to students who need accommodations to their educational experience, but who don’t qualify for an IEP. A 504 plan gives those students who don’t meet IEP qualifications an opportunity to still work with parents and school staff to find ways to promote academic success. Examples of 504 plan accommodations include modified physical education classes for students with asthma and peer note-takers for students with arm, hand, or wrist injuries.

Both IEPs and 504 plans must be respected and implemented by the school and its staff. A 504 plan can be utilized on a temporary or continual basis, depending on the student’s level of need. IEPs serve as a detailed roadmap that school personnel use to provide special education services on a continual basis. Each option is typically reviewed and renewed annually, with changes made depending on the student’s current educational needs. This annual review is a great opportunity to note any ways in which your student’s plan could be improved in order to promote the best academic experience for him or her.

The best option for your student depends on a variety of factors. Both IEPs and 504 plans have their own qualifications, positives, and negatives that will ultimately suit each student differently.

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