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504 Plan Versus IEP Overview

Student working in classroom

School systems use both individualized education programs and 504 plans to meet the individual needs of students with special needs. The two documents have the same goal but take a different approach in helping students learn. One is not better than the other, just more appropriate for the student’s specific learning needs. Both the IEP and the 504 are legally binding documents created to ensure students with special needs receive the proper services or accommodations to reach their education goals.

Learning about the difference between IEP and 504 plans can be confusing for parents unfamiliar with special education laws and what they mean for their child. There are three federal laws that guarantee the rights of students with special needs: the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (special education law) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (civil rights law). Individual states set the guidelines on how they will provide IEP and 504 plan services and supports.

Individualized education program overview

To be eligible for an IEP, a student must meet criteria set by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and have one of 13 specified conditions that are written in the law. However, having one of these conditions isn’t enough to ensure a student is eligible for special education and an IEP. The disability must also have an educational impact that negatively affects the student’s ability to learn. Lastly, it must be determined that the student requires specialized instruction to be academically successful. All three of these criteria 1) qualifying disability, 2) disability impacts learning and 3) student requires specialized instruction to achieve education goals, must be met for the student to be found eligible for special education. If all three of these criteria are met, an IEP will be developed to map out short- and long-term learning goals for the student and where and how these goals will be met.

Quick facts about IEPs

  • The parent or guardian is always an important member of the IEP team.
  • An IEP includes information on a student’s present levels of performance, annual goals, related services, possible changes to placement, accommodations and modifications.
  • Accommodations provide supports to access the curriculum (i.e. sitting at the front of the classroom to hear/see the teacher), where modifications might change the curriculum or the way a student accesses the curriculum.
  • School systems must review IEPs at least annually; parents must be notified in writing about the IEP meeting, the purpose of the meeting and be asked to attend.
  • A triennial review is conducted at least every three years to make sure the student continues to meet the eligibility criteria established by IDEA.
  • The IEP will be reviewed at each new school. It will be implemented as written or revised depending on the IEP, the school’s assessment of the student’s needs, and state/local policy on the IDEA and free and appropriate public education.
  • An IEP typically ends at the completion of high school, although it may go until age 21 if the student receives district services after high school, such as vocational and/or independent living instruction.

IEP review meetings

You have the right to prepare for your IEP meeting by asking for a draft copy of the IEP prior to the meeting. If you can’t get the draft, consider rescheduling until you receive it so you can arrive prepared for the meeting. Other tips to consider for your meeting include:

  • Remember you are the expert on your child and the one constant member of the IEP team from preschool to high school – you are there for the entire journey.
  • Write down your questions and ask for clarification. Involve a friend, EFMP Family Support provider, school liaison, teacher or community agency representative for a second set of eyes on the IEP draft before the meeting.
  • At the meeting, if you aren’t clear on the proposed recommendations, you have the right to ask your questions, disagree and make suggestions. You do not have to sign the IEP if you disagree, your child will still receive special education services while you consider options.

504 plan

If a student has a medical diagnosis or condition that impacts learning but doesn’t qualify for an IEP based on the three criteria, the student may qualify for a 504 plan instead. If the school recommends a 504 plan, ask questions like these for clarification:

  • Why do you believe a 504 plan is a better option for my child?
  • How can a 504 plan help my child in school?
  • How would the proposed 504 accommodations help remove learning barriers for my child?
  • How often can we meet about my child’s plan?
  • Who is on my child’s 504 plan team?

Remember, a 504 plan is a formal plan that schools develop to remove barriers to learning and give students with special needs or impairments the support they need. Typically, the changes or accommodations are made in the general education classroom and don’t require specialized instruction.  Because of this, a 504 plan is not special education and is not part of the IDEA. The 504 plan gets its name from section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and provides associated civil rights protections to the student.

One example of a student who may benefit from a 504 plan could be a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who needs extra time to take a test or complete homework. Perhaps the student also has a need for specific seating – maybe in the front of the class or next to the teacher to be less distracted by other students. These minor accommodations may be just what the student needs to thrive in the classroom.

A good 504 plan:

  • Is personalized for the student’s individual needs
  • Covers all the areas where help is needed
  • Describes specific services that the student needs. For example, the student may need assistive technology for reading – perhaps audiobooks – to hear as well as see what they are reading.

Check in with teachers on a regular basis to see how accommodations are working and if necessary, adjust the plan. You and the school should review and update the plan yearly to make sure it covers your child’s current challenges and eliminates unneeded accommodations.

There is no age limit on the 504 plan – so your child can take it to college or even to the workplace. The 504 plan doesn’t offer related services – like physical or occupational therapy, etc. Instead, the accommodations or supports even the playing field for your child so they can access learning the way their same-age peers do. There are no annual goals in a 504 plan – except the goal to make sure your child has what they need to be successful in the classroom.

Moving with an education plan

Since different school districts provide IEP and 504 plan services in different ways, military families may be concerned about continuity of services between PCS moves. However, the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, a voluntary agreement between states and the military, helps to ease relocation issues. The compact calls for the temporary provision of IEP and 504 services comparable to the previous school’s until an IEP is created for the new school.

The Department of Defense State Liaison Office continues to work on the Advance Enrollment Initiative, which is now policy in many states. This initiative gives PCSing students the opportunity to register in a new/anticipated school district and begin coordinating their IEP or 504 plan requirements before they are physically located within the school district.

One of the most important steps military parents can take to pave the way when relocating is to involve their school liaison. School liaisons can also help with any other issues that arise with your child’s education, IEP or 504 plan.

Keep track of contacts, resources and your child’s progress and plan using the Special Care Organizational Record for Children with Special Health or Educational Needs. Visit EFMP & Me and review the education checklist to learn more about IEPs and 504 plans. And don’t hesitate to connect with an EFMP Family Support Provider, school liaison office or call to speak with a Military OneSource consultant at 800-342-9647 to get the information you need.

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