Individual Education Plans versus 504 Plans

PaperworkThere is often confusion among parents and teachers regarding the differences between 504 Plans and Individual Education Plans (IEP). While both are legal provisions that allow accommodations for students with disabilities, they are not the same. This article helps to clarify the purposes and differences between IEPs and 504 Plans.

What is a 504 Plan?

A 504 Plan is a legal document specifying accommodations that a person may need due to a disability. It is regulated under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) reiterates the same procedures and rights as the Rehabilitation Act. Both are civil rights laws that specify an individual cannot be excluded from participating in federally funded programs or activities based on a disability. Because public schools receive federal funding, students with disabilities must receive accommodations in order to allow them to participate fully in the school environment. 504 Plans essentially level the playing field so that a student with a disability may access the school environment and general curriculum.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is a legal document outlying special education services for a student with a disability who requires specially designed instruction. IEPs are regulated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004). IDEA is comprehensive and specific in the procedures for developing an IEP. According to IDEA, IEPs must contain the following nine requirements (34 CFR § 300.320).

  • A statement of present levels of performance including strengths
  • Measurable annual goals
  • A description of how progress will be measured
  • A description of how parents will be informed about their child’s progress
  • A statement of the services that will be provided
  • An explanation of the extent that the student will be educated away from typical peers
  • A statement of accommodations necessary during state or district assessments
  • The projected beginning date as well as the frequency, location, and duration of services
  • A transition plan (This is only required for a child who will be turning 16 during the duration of the annual IEP. It is not needed for younger students.)

Eligibility for a 504 Plan versus an IEP

504 Plans and IEPs are only available to students with disabilities. Both Section 504 and IDEA require evaluations that draw information from multiple sources before a 504 Plan or IEP can be implemented. The special education team is involved in an evaluation leading to an IEP, but is generally not involved in the 504 process. Most often, evaluations for 504 Plans involve medical documentation of a disability and a review by the 504 team to determine necessary accommodations. Typically, the school counselor or administrator serves as the 504 coordinator. Section 504 does not have specifications for this process.

In order for a student to be eligible for an IEP, he must have a documented disability that requires specially designed instruction. Students with disabilities do not automatically qualify for special education services under IDEA. If a child has a disability but is not in need of specially designed instruction, he may be eligible for a 504 Plan.

To be eligible for a 504 Plan, a child must have a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Major life activities include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, writing, performing math calculations, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks. A 504 Plan provides accommodations for a student to access the environment and general curriculum, but does not provide individualized instruction or programming.

Example of a 504 Plan versus an IEP

Here are a few scenarios to better understand when an IEP or 504 Plan is implemented.

#1: Brian is a high school student in a wheelchair. He requires use of an elevator, ramps, and a wheelchair accessible bathroom. Brian sometimes has difficulty transitioning to his classes on time. The team wrote a 504 Plan to make modifications to Brian’s physical environment and to allow him additional time during passing periods.

Brian is able to participate fully in the general education curriculum and does not require specially designed instruction. He does not meet eligibility for special education services under IDEA, but does require modifications provided by a 504 Plan.

#2: Karla is a junior high student with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). She is easily distracted in class and has difficulty focusing on instruction. Karla frequently misplaces assignments and struggles with organizational skills. She is failing all of her classes. Karla was referred for a special education evaluation. Testing revealed that her academic skills were significantly below grade level. The team determined that she was eligible for an IEP because her learning needs could not be met in the general curriculum without specially designed instruction.

If Karla was able to make progress within the general curriculum without specially designed instruction, a 504 Plan could have been written to help with organizational skills. Her 504 Plan could have stated the use of an agenda to track assignments, increased home-school communication, extra set of textbooks to keep at home, etc.

#3: Peter is a fourth grade student who has a diagnosis of autism. He becomes anxious if there is a lack of structure and consistency in his daily routine. Peter has a fear of loud noises and is visibly upset during fire drills. Peter’s state and district assessments reveal that he is at or above grade level in all subject areas. Classroom data indicates that Peter is able to express his wants and needs and interacts with his peers. The team wrote a 504 Plan to provide Peter with a daily schedule and advanced warning to changes in his routine. He was given a set of earplugs to use in the event of a fire drill.

If Peter was not able to perform at grade level or demonstrated significant difficulty with language or social skills, he may have been evaluated and found eligible for an IEP. In this case, an IEP would address individualized instruction designed to meet Peter’s unique needs.

Benefits and Rights

504 Plans and IEPs both provide accommodations and modifications to students with disabilities that are not available to children without disabilities. A student with an IEP is automatically protected from discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and ADA. However, a student with a 504 Plan is not protected under IDEA. IDEA only provides legal rights to students eligible for IEPs.

Under Section 504, a student with severe misbehavior may be expelled from school permanently if the behavior is not a manifestation of the disability. In contrast, a student on an IEP has the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) even if expelled from school.

IDEA includes a system of procedural safeguards and “Prior Written Notice” before any changes to a student’s placement may occur. There is no provision for this under Section 504. While there are protections and rights associated with Section 504, they are not as rigid and comprehensive as the protections established under IDEA.

A student’s IEP only applies to the school environment where 504 Plans extend far beyond the school setting.

IEPs and 504 Plans are both legal documents that must be followed. There is sometimes the misperception that recommendations on a 504 Plan are merely “suggestions.” However, this is not the case. The Rehabilitation Act, ADA, and IDEA were put into place to ensure that students with disabilities are able to receive the necessary supports in order to be successful in the school environment.

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  1. Rick Metheny says:

    You reference that, “In order for a student to be eligible for an IEP, he must have a documented disability that requires specially designed instruction”, which has always in my mind been a delineating line between IDEA and 504. I was recently reading other, seemingly authoritarian websites, saying that under 504 students are eligible for special education, including specially designed instruction. Can you provide some documentation I can use in this discussion at a system level?


    • Dr.Hill says:

      There is so much confusion (and misinformation) out there regarding IDEA and Section 504. Under Section 504 some students may be eligible for special education services and some may not. The delineating factor is the need for specially designed instruction. Section 504 is a civil rights law that protects all individuals with disabilities from discrimination. Therefore, all students covered under IDEA are also protected under 504. However, the reverse is not true. All students covered under Section 504 are not covered under IDEA. There must be a disability that requires specially designed instruction in order for a student to be covered under IDEA and receive special education services. I hope this helps to clarify.

      For Section 504, see
      For IDEA, see

  2. Angela says:

    I am in the middle of a heated IEP evaluation and cannot find clear answers on exactly who and what determines “need”. The school told me that my son does not NEED services before they ever even evaluated him, though they did agree to evaluate him. They offered a 504 as a bribe to get me to let go of the request for evaluations, which I refused and insisted on the evaluations. I am trying to prepare for our ETR and I sincerely need to find this answer! Any help you could provide or a direction to point me in would be wonderful! Thank you!

    • Dr.Hill says:

      I’m so sorry to hear that you are having a difficult time with your son’s school. While most schools try very hard to work collaboratively with parents, there are sometimes cases where both parties can’t agree. This is the reason parents are provided with copies of their Procedural Safeguards over and over again. Schools are required to inform parents that they have a TON of rights. Keep this in mind going into your meeting. Mediation and due process aren’t fun, but they are there for a reason. As far as your question on who/what determines “need”, this should be a team decision following an evaluation. Services can’t really be determined before an evaluation is done. That being said, there needs to be evidence that suggests your son might have a disability interfering with his education in order to proceed with an evaluation. Teams (including the parent) should look at previous report cards, state testing, classroom work samples, office referrals/disciplinary actions (for behavioral concerns), outside medical reports…basically anything that provides information on how the child is functioning within the school setting. I’m assuming that since your son’s school offered a 504 Plan, he has an identified medical condition. The question then becomes, does he require specially designed instruction in order to progress in school. The reason to implement a 504 Plan over an IEP is if he is capable of performing at grade level, but requires specific accommodations in the classroom in order to be successful. Hopefully this answers your question. If not, or if you want to dialogue about this further, feel free to email me at Good luck with your upcoming meeting!

      • Angela says:

        Thank you for your reply! I have taken you up on your kind offer and emailed you specific details of our situations as well since a few details reveal identity in minor ways. Thank you again and I look forward to your input. 🙂

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