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IEP and 504 Plans: Two Tools to Support School Success for Children with Disabilities

by Dr. Maggie Wright

All children learn in different ways. For children with disabilities, there are programs designed to meet their individual learning needs in school. As a parent, these programs can quickly start sounding like alphabet soup. Let’s talk about the two most common plans, IEP and 504 – who qualifies, how they’re different and how to set your child up for success.

What is an IEP?

An IEP (Individualized Education Program) provides individualized special education and related services. It falls under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), a federal special education law that requires public schools to provide these services to eligible kids. Children with delayed skills or disabilities listed by IDEA may have learning difficulties and functioning making it hard to succeed in a general classroom. They qualify for an IEP, which can include both modifications to the learning content and accommodations to their learning environment from grades K-12. Each child’s IEP is written by a team that includes general and special education teachers, a parent/caregiver, a district representative and a school psychologist or other professional who can interpret evaluation results.

What’s in an IEP?

  • How the child is currently doing in school
  • Annual education goals, and how to track progress toward them
  • Services included: such as special education, supplementary services and extended school year services
  • Timing of services: when they start, how often and how long they last
  • Accommodations to the learning environment: such as taking tests in a separate room, extra time for homework or using text-to-speech technology for reading
  • Modifications to learning content: what the child is expected to learn and at what pace
  • How the child will participate in standardized tests
  • How the child will be included in the general education classroom and activities

What should I expect? What are my rights for my child’s IEP process?

If a parent or teacher thinks a child might benefit from an IEP, the first step is requesting the evaluation and giving consent for testing. Once a parent requests an IEP evaluation in writing, the school has 60 days to complete it. If the evaluation shows IEP eligibility, the school has 30 days to hold an IEP meeting. If the evaluation shows the child does not qualify for an IEP but the parent disagrees, the parent can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). A child must be re-evaluated every 3 years to know if an IEP is still needed. An IEP must be reviewed at least once a year.

How to make an IEP meeting less stressful

Know who’s in the room. The school must invite a parent/caregiver to the IEP meeting, and the other participants should be teachers and other professionals who know your child well and have the skills to turn evaluation results into an education plan. If you think someone should be involved who isn’t there, speak up!

Make your voice heard. As a parent, you are an expert on many of your child’s needs and are an important voice to speak on their behalf. If you are concerned that your child’s IEP does not match their needs or learning goals, it is your right to have that addressed. If you don’t think the evaluation thoroughly showed what your child needs to succeed in school, it is your right to request an independent evaluation, which is paid for by the school.

Involve your child’s primary care provider. Many pediatric primary care providers review their patients’ IEPs, and some are able to join an IEP meeting if needed. As a medical expert who knows your child and family well, they can be an advocate who helps the IEP team make a plan best suited to your child’s needs.

What is a 504 plan?

A 504 plan provides learning accommodations. It falls under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a federal civil rights law to prevent discrimination against public school students with disabilities. A broad range of disabilities can make a child eligible for a 504 plan, and there are some children who do not qualify for an IEP who do qualify for a 504. In general, any child with a disability that interferes with their success in a general education classroom could be eligible for a 504 plan, and eligibility can extend from kindergarten through college. 504 planning team members vary depending on the situation.

What’s in a 504 plan?

  • Accommodations to the learning environment: such as extended time for testing, preferential seating, technology aids (i.e. communication device), behavioral management support
  • Who will provide services
  • Who is responsible for ensuring the plan is implemented

Most 504 plans are written, but it's not a requirement. There is no standard form for a 504 plan.

What should I expect? What are my rights for my child’s 504 process?

If a parent or teacher thinks a child might benefit from a 504 plan, the first step is requesting the evaluation and giving consent for testing. Unlike an IEP, there is not a specific timeframe for testing, and the school does not have to include a parent/caregiver in the team that decides whether a 504 is needed or what it includes. A child cannot be evaluated for a 504 plan without a parent’s consent, and a parent must be given a copy of the plan once it is made. If the evaluation shows that a child does not qualify for a 504 plan and a parent disagrees, the parent can request a due process hearing or file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. Schools are not required to pay for an additional independent 504 evaluation. A 504 plan is typically reviewed once a year, but the rules vary by state.

A word on distance learning

Recent widespread and prolonged school closures have left many families wondering how IEP and 504 plans will be carried out in a nontraditional learning environment, such as distance learning from home. If a school is closed and is not offering distance learning to any of its students, legally it does not have to provide services to disabled students. But if a school is providing educational services to any of its students, it must also make every effort to provide special education and related services to students with disabilities with equal access to educational opportunities, as outlined in the IEP or 504. While the learning experience is certainly different at home compared to in the classroom, students with disabilities should still expect to receive the resources and supports needed to reach their learning goals. Creative thinking and teamwork with your child’s school can help prevent learning gaps during the transition to distance learning. While schools sometimes have limited resources, that does not mean that children with disabilities lose their right to a free and appropriate education. IEP and 504 plans are meant to help ensure that every child has access to the educational resources and supports they need.

School advocacy resources for children with special educational needs


Kansas: https://familiestogetherinc.org/

Missouri: https://www.missouriparentsact.org/

Resources for further learning

A Guide to the Individualized Education Program. U.S. Department of Education. Last modified: 08/30/2019. Accessed: 07/26/2020. https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html

A Parent’s Guide to Section 504 in Public Schools. Sept 26, 2013. Accessed: 07/26/2020. https://www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/section-504-2/

IEP vs. 504 plans: Pediatrician’s office often first stop for families navigating educational issues. Kristy Kennedy, AAP News. Jan 9, 2017. Accessed: 07/26/2020. https://www.aappublications.org/news/2017/01/09/IEP010917

Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak. U.S. Department of Education. March 2020. Accessed: 07/27/2020. https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/qa-covid-19-03-12-2020.pdf