IEP or 504 Plans? – The Premium Package for your child

All parents want “the premium package” for their children, especially in schools. They go through lengths to ensure their children get the appropriate education and the necessary support to succeed. Parents whose children have Special Education needs are even more resilient in advocating that their child gets that specialized education tailored according to their needs. Schools, families, and lawmakers realize that even when it comes to education, the notion of ‘one size fits all’ is not accurate.

Students with special needs are also protected by two laws, The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and the 504 Plan, when it comes to receiving the most appropriate school based on a child’s need. Both the IEP and 504 Plan offer formal help to K-12 students. They’re similar in some ways and quite different in others.

An IEP and a 504 are both detailed plans, created by the school and parents that outline how a student with a disability will learn. They are both intended to protect a student with a disability to ensure that they learn in the least restrictive environment. They both require that a student has a documented disability, but the eligibility categories may vary between the plans. An IEP and a 504 Plan also have unique differences.

Firstly, the criteria with which a student qualifies for either service vary. In addition to the disability, there are additional requirements to receive Special Education Services, mandated by the Department of Education. In addition to having a disability to qualify for an IEP, there needs to be data to support that the disability creates an adverse impact on academic performance that therefore, specialized instruction is essential for the student to be successful. In other words, a student can have a disability, yet not qualify for special education services or an IEP.

Similarly, to qualify for a 504 Plan, a student must have a disability that impairs a major life function, not restricted to an educational impact. That disability does not have to be one of the 14 categories outlined by the Department of Education.  It can be any mental or physical disability.

Secondly, an IEP plan does not transition with the student beyond high school. a 504 plan transfers to college as well as workplace.

The following chart outlines some crucial comparisons between the two plans

IEP vs 504Individualized Education Plan IEPSection 504 Plan
Type of lawSpecial Education – Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEACivil Rights – Rehabilitation Act of 1973
DepartmentDepartment of EducationOffice of Civil Rights
Requirements for eligibilityHas a disability that

a)  Meets criteria under IDEA,

b)  Significantly impacts educational performance

c)  Requires specialized services

Has a disability that significantly impacts a major life function
What is included?Specialized education services, accommodations, related services, performance goalsAccommodations, modifications
Where is the plan usedEducationally, through the 12th grade.

Does not transfer to a college

School, work, and college

504 plans will transfer to college and workplace


The most frequent question parents ask is which one of them is better, and the truthful answer is – It depends.  Following are some examples of students who have a disability and may benefit from one plan over the other.

  • A student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who is doing well academically but need social skills assistance or a specific accommodation such as a visual calendar would benefit from a 504 Plan and Autism Services
  • A student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or processing speed challenges that does not need specialized instruction but would benefit from additional time in a less distracting environment for tests and accommodations such as preferential seating or physical breaks. A 504 Plan would be more appropriate for such student
  • A student transitioning from high school could take their 504 Plan with them to continue receiving accommodations such as additional times, break, visual calendar etc.
  • Any student who requires specialized instruction and personalized academic goals would benefit from an IEP over a 504
  • A student with social-emotional concerns that are adversely impacting their academic performance would benefit from specialized instruction and skill support under an IEP


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