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Julie McKinney, MS
April 1, 2024

504 vs. IEP: What’s the difference?

What’s the difference between a 504 plan and an IEP? Both are for students with disabilities, but there are some key differences.

Does your child have a disability and need some adjustments to help them in school? If so, you may have heard about an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or a 504 Plan. These are both plans that are specific to your child and describe ways to help them learn in school.

But what’s the difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP? 

  • 504 Plans describe adjustments in the school setting to remove barriers to the regular education in school
  • IEPs remove barriers and also provide specialized instruction and services to help a child develop the skills that their disability makes harder to learn

Read on or jump right to the section you need:

504 vs. IEP: What laws govern them?

504 Plans are described in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This is a civil rights law, and Section 504 protects the rights of people with disabilities. It ensures that they have equal access to all public services that get funding from the federal government. This includes public schools and others (like some charter schools) that get any federal funding. 

The concept is that kids in public school should have “equal access” to the regular school curriculum in the same way that ramps provide “equal access” to federal buildings. The 504 plan describes adjustments – called accommodations – in the school setting. The purpose of accommodations is to make sure that a student can learn from (“access”) all parts of the school day, despite their disability. 

A 504 Plan does not provide extra services or change the curriculum. It’s not considered “Special Education,” even though sometimes school systems manage 504 plans through the Special Education team.

IEPs are a feature of IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

IDEA guarantees all students the right to learn in schools that get federal funding. This includes students with disabilities. (Early Intervention, a program for children from 0-3, comes from the same law.) 

Since the goal of IDEA is learning, not just accessing the curriculum, IEPs include specialized instruction and services, and often an adjustment of the regular school curriculum. If your child has an IEP they are getting “Special Education.” This might mean they are in a general education classroom with extra support in or out of class, or it can mean they are in a specialized classroom or even a specialized school.

Both 504 plans and IEPs are legal contracts between you and the school.

The school is required to follow them. But unfortunately, since 504s are less structured, they are too often not upheld by schools. For either a 504 or IEP, you will need to keep track of how consistently the school is doing what the document says. You should meet with the 504 or IEP team every year, but you can ask to meet anytime you need to.

504 vs. IEP: Who qualifies?

Any child with a disability that impacts their ability to learn in school should qualify for either a 504 Plan or an IEP. If the disability doesn’t require specialized services, you can usually work with the school quickly to put a 504 plan into place. For example, if a child is easily distracted they could get a 504 plan that allows them to wear headphones during independent work time, or a desk at the front of the room. But if your child may need specialized services, or if you don’t know the extent of the disability, the school will do an evaluation to see if your child qualifies. 

The criteria for disability is narrower and more specific for an IEP. IDEA lists 13 specific conditions that qualify, including autism, a learning disability and “emotional disturbance”. (Not all the terms are what we like to use, but it’s good to note that mental health challenges can qualify a child for services.) In addition to the condition, the child must also be not making progress due to the disability, and require specialized services.

If your child can make progress in school with only accommodations, then a 504 should be enough. But if they also need specialized instruction like working with an education specialist, or a speech, occupational or other therapist, they should qualify for an IEP. 

504 vs. IEP: What services can they include?

504 Plans only include accommodations

These are adjustments in the classroom environment to help a child get past barriers caused by their disability. These include equipment like a communication device, voice-to-text software, or books in Braille or online with voice output. Accommodations also can be things to reduce distractions for kids with ADHD like noise-canceling headphones, frequent breaks, or a desk in the front row.

See more examples of accommodations.

IEPs include accommodations, specialized instruction, and “related services”

Specialized instruction means working with a learning specialist, like a reading or math coach. This can be done in the classroom or a student can be “pulled out” to work with the specialist in a private room.

“Related services” are therapies to help a student with developmental skills that contribute to learning. Examples are speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy or behavioral therapy.

An IEP also describes specific goals and objectives for the student’s progress, but a 504 does not.

504 vs. IEP: What happens after high school?

Neither document continues after high school. IDEA guarantees special education services until age 22 or graduation, whichever comes first. After that, the IEP is no longer in effect. Read about the transition from school to adulthood

Section 504 guarantees equal access beyond age 22. The 504 plan itself will not follow a student through college or technical school, but these schools (and workplaces!) are still required to provide accommodations if needed. If your child is going to college, they won’t have a 504 plan, but they can go to the school’s Disability Office and arrange for the accommodations they need. The school will usually ask for the 504 plan from high school to prove the need. Because of this, it’s wise to make sure that every accommodation your child needs stays on the 504 plan until they finish high school.

What law covers it?Section 504 of Civil rights lawIDEA – Education law
How does a child qualify?Disability that affects “access” to general school curriculum (not specified in law)Disability that requires specialized teaching and related services in order to learn in school (specific criteria)
What does it offer?AccommodationsSpecialized instruction, services like therapies, and accommodations 
Does it change the curriculum?NoYes
Is it a legally binding contract?YesYes
Does it include goals and objectives?NoYes
Does it last after high school?NoNo
Is it considered Special Education?NoYes

Riley’s story: an example of a 504 vs IEP

Riley on wall cropped

My son Riley had trouble with reading in 2nd grade. And sitting still, and focusing on his work. While his peers were choosing chapter books for their independent reading, he was still on picture books and felt self-conscious. He was an active, exuberant kid, but had trouble slowing down when he needed to. We talked with the teacher and asked for a special ed evaluation. She also suggested an ADHD evaluation, which was mainly a questionnaire filled out by teacher, doctor and parents.

The results showed that he had ADHD, dyslexia, and some fine motor coordination delays that affected his handwriting. Accommodations could support some of this, but not all of it. For example, he was allowed to use a small laptop for all his writing, and given frequent breaks and extra time to complete assignments. In addition to these supports, he also needed specialized instruction and occupational therapy (OT) in order to progress in school. That meant that he needed an IEP, not just a 504 plan.

When Riley was about to start middle school, he had his 3-year re-evaluation. It showed that he had met his goals and was making progress in school, but it was clear he still needed the accommodations. We all agreed that at this point it would be more important for him to be present in class for the whole day than to keep getting pulled out to do the reading instruction and OT. So we didn’t continue the IEP, but wrote up a 504 plan. This was a key decision-making point! We talked to the whole team and asked lots of questions. We were careful to make sure he didn’t need the support of the specialists before we let the IEP go. (It’s easier to keep it in place than to put it back later.)

As things got more complex in middle and high school, we added some new accommodations to his 504. For example, he started to get written notes for some of his classes instead of having to take his own. (Note-taking is a tough skill, even without ADHD!) He was given graphic organizers to help break down his assignments, and teachers were told to help him set deadlines for the smaller chunks. These accommodations helped him manage the schoolwork, and also helped him learn strategies for managing work in general.

As Riley neared the end of high school, we started to think about what support he could get in college. We knew he could get accommodations from the Office of Disability Services, but that he would need to show them his 504 plan from high school. At our last couple 504 meetings, the team suggested removing some things from his plan. Does he really need class notes? Does he still need extra time for tests? We insisted that we keep these listed on his 504 plan, even if he wasn’t using all of them at the moment. College was going to be hard enough, so he may need these accommodations later, even if he wasn’t using them now.

Riley is now a successful college Junior! The transition wasn’t easy, but with lots of preparation, he knew what he had to do. He had to understand his own needs, learn the system in a new place, and figure out on his own how to sign up for accommodations. But he did it. And he continues to learn to advocate for his own needs.

We’re so proud of him! And so thankful that his IEP during his early school years – and then his 504 plan later – allowed him to get to this point.

  • Julie McKinney, MS

    Director of Training / Health Literacy Specialist

    Julie McKinney has over 25 years of experience in health literacy, plain language, and adult education. She has deep expertise in writing information so it’s easy to understand, and has developed trainings for educators in clear communication.

    At Exceptional Lives, she ensures that our content is clear and friendly. She also works to strengthen relationships with community partners, and designs trainings that help them connect with families.
    Julie also has experience parenting kids with ADHD, learning disabilities and significant intellectual disability. She has ushered her own children through schooling and transition to adulthood, and is committed to helping make this process easier for others.

    Her core view is that good relationships are the key to just about anything we hope for.

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