Which Does Your Child Need? - Comparing the 504 Plan and the IEP

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“504 Plan”) are two laws that provide for services and accommodations to eligible children with special needs. Both of these laws are implemented through a plan developed by the school district: The Individual Education Program (“IEP”) and the 504 Plan.

The 504 Plan provides broader eligibility than the IDEA. More children qualify under the 504 Plan than under the IDEA because the 504 Plan only requires a child have a disability that impacts a “major life activity.” In contrast, under the IDEA, a child’s disability must fall within a specific eligibility category (such as autism, language impairment, specific learning disability, etc.) and impact their “education” making special education services necessary.

A child eligible for services under the IDEA is also protected under Section 504. In contrast, if your child is ineligible under the IDEA, the 504 Plan is still an option to get the help your child needs. Determining which plan your child needs starts with understanding the purpose of the respective laws.

The 504 Plan

A 504 Plan provides services and accommodations to ensure your child has the same meaningful access to the general education program as non-disabled students. The key is “equal access” to the programs and services available to students without disabilities.

For example, if “all” students are entitled to take part in the chess club but it is located in an area inaccessible to disabled students, the school is required to provide the means of access or move the club to an accessible area. A 504 Plan can be written to accommodate front row seating in a classroom or additional testing time for students with mild attention deficit disorder. At the center of the 504 Plan are services and accommodations that provide access to public education.


An IEP goes further than the 504 Plan by providing "specialized instruction" necessary to meet your child’s unique needs. Specialized instruction means adapting the content, methodology or delivery of instruction, to meet the unique needs of the disabled child.

An IEP is a legally binding document setting forth the special education and related services your child will receive. An IEP contains information about your child’s past performance, present levels of performance, and goals. It is periodically reviewed and updated by the “IEP Team” composed of administrators, teachers, district service providers, and you, the parent.

The IEP Team must carefully examine your child’s records and assessments to provide the specialized instruction necessary to meet your child’s individual needs. For example, if your child has a language weakness, she may need speech-language services as a form of specialized instruction to benefit from her education. If your child has behavioral problems, he may need specialized instruction in the form of a behavior plan, an aide, counseling, or therapy. If your child has moderate or severe attention deficit disorder, she may require small group instruction as a form of specialized instruction. The IEP must include specialized instruction that enables a child to progress from year to year.

In addition to offering specialized instruction, the IEP also offers substantially more protections. While both offer “procedural” protections in the planning process, the IDEA is more explicit in safeguarding these rights in areas like evaluation, planning, discipline, and parental participation. The Section 504 Plan does not include clearly established notice requirements for the planning stage. In contrast, the IDEA includes an elaborate system of procedural safeguards designed to protect the child and her parents. These safeguards include written notice before any change of placement and the right to an independent educational evaluation, possibly at public expense.

Choosing the correct plan is critical. Sometimes, everyone on the IEP team agrees that the student qualifies under the IDEA because specialized instruction (such as small group instruction) is clearly needed to meet the child’s educational needs. Other times, a 504 Plan is appropriate if a student only needs modifications and accommodations to access the general education program. For instance, if a student occasionally misses school due to severe allergies, he may only need an accommodation plan to make up lost work, but may not need specialized instruction.

Sometimes, the parent may feel her child (who is currently on a 504 Plan) needs special education services. For example, if a child on a 504 Plan continues to fall further and further behind, this may suggest the need for a “specialized” instruction. But the school district may continue to offer only the 504 Plan because it is generally less burdensome and less expensive for the school district.

If you feel your child needs specialized instruction to make educational progress, consider the IEP. If you’re unsure, seek the advice of an attorney to see if your child needs to be put on the right track.