By Nora Heston Tarte

If you’re the parent to a child who has ever struggled in school, it’s possible you’ve heard the terms Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and 504 Plan thrown around. The question is, do you know what these two plans are? Sure, both were created to help school-aged kids with learning and attention issues excel in the classroom, but what exactly is the difference between the two?


Let’s start with how these two education resources are similar. For starters, both plans act as a blueprint or a plan for a child’s learning path at school. Both plans are also free to parents, although evaluation costs may occur. To qualify, students must demonstrate difficulty to learn in a standard classroom environment without the use of excess services.

Furthermore, both plans were created under a governing law, although the two laws the plans spawned from are different. A 504 plan gets its name from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973  because it is written in section 504 of that act. An IEP came into effect later, written into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was amended in 2004.

When a student is disciplined, both plans protect the child in similar ways. When discipline is doled out to a child with either plan, a manifestation determination meeting is held to decide if the action that resulted in discipline was the result of the disability. In some cases reevaluation may be required with a 504 Plan. With an IEP, services are required during long-term suspensions.


One plan is not better than the other. A student’s specific needs and learning barriers will determine which plan is a better fit. However, many see the biggest difference between these two plans as what they provide to a student. For example, a 504 Plan requires a school to make accommodations and modifications to help the child learn. An IEP offers both accommodations and services to a student. Think of it this way: an accommodation may include more time to take a test while a service could include a personal classroom aid. An IEP is also a legally binding document, unlike a 504 Plan.

Generally speaking, students with a 504 Plan are classified as functioning well in a normal academic environment without assistance while children with an IEP have shown a proven need for classroom assistance as well as accommodations and/or modifications.

Another key difference between these two plans is how a child qualifies. For the 504 Plan, an evaluator must determine that the child has a disability and that disability affects the child’s ability to learn. For an IEP plan, qualifications are more cut and dry. A student must be diagnosed with one of 13 possible disabilities, the disability must impact academic performance and it must be determined that special accommodations are required for the student to excel in a traditional classroom environment.

When a child qualifies for an IEP, benefits are given through 12th grade. Once a 504 Plan is approved, there is no age limit for benefits. This means a 504 Plan can benefit someone in college and even in a work environment.

Which Plan is Right for Your Child?

It’s impossible for anyone other than a professional to answer this question. There are, however, some facts to keep in mind.

In general, qualifying for an IEP is more difficult in large part because services are rendered in this plan. A 504 Plan, however, is a more vague in its description. It is easier for kids to qualify for accommodations and modifications than services.

Simply because an IEP plan offers academic services doesn’t make it a better plan. Some children fair better with a 504 Plan because they don’t require services. Students who perform well academically but struggle with social skills or executive functioning may only need a 504 plan with small accommodations. Children with ADHD can be another example because they may not need services, however, additional time to take tests and complete tasks can be helpful if they are easily distracted. Children with physical disabilities may also benefit from a 504, such as a child in a wheelchair needing more time to get between classes or a child with a hearing or vision problem needing to be seated closer to the teacher.




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