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Ask the Attorney—”What’s the difference between an IEP and 504 plan?”

My child was diagnosed with a disability over the summer. I’ve been reading about IEP and 504 plans but can’t figure out the difference. Can you explain?

This is a good question that comes up frequently. An IEP is an Individualized Education Program (or Plan) that is required for any child who qualifies as a student with a disability under Massachusetts law (you can find a list here under #7!), and as a result of the disability, the student requires “specially designed instruction” to make progress in the general education setting, or requires one or more services to access the general curriculum.1

What does this mean? (1) The student has one of more of the qualifying disabilities, and (2) the student needs some help accessing the curriculum.

In short, an IEP describes the special instruction or services that a student needs in order to access the curriculum. The student may work with a learning specialist within the general education classroom, outside the general education classroom, or a combination of both.

An IEP may include modifications (changes) to the curriculum itself. For example, your child might read the same story as everyone else, just at a different reading level.

A 504 plan, on the other hand, describes accommodations that will help the student succeed in the classroom and follow the curriculum – but without changing the curriculum itself. Accommodations are often small changes that might include sitting up front near the teacher, taking frequent breaks, or extra time on tests. Again, accommodations do not change the curriculum that the student receives.

Guest parent blogger Katie Emmanuel shares more about the differences between modifications and accommodations in this post! We also have a section on IEP v. 504 in our Special Education Guide. Don’t miss it!
Start Special Education Guide

Remember, the law requires that students with disabilities receive their education in the least restrictive environment (like the general education classroom!) alongside their mainstream peers to the greatest extent possible.

*As with all materials available via Exceptional Lives, information provided in the “Ask the Attorney” section does not constitute legal advice or an attorney-client relationship.

1 603 CMR 28.05(2)(a), 2 603 CMR 28.02(12)

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