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Navigating 504 & IEP plans: A Parent’s Guide

Updated: May 8, 2023

This is an image of a student with glasses sitting in a classroom with peers.

In the classroom, teachers are following specific educational roadmaps in order to help their students meet state standards.

But what if a child is unable to successfully stay on the road and attain the goals at the expected rate of their peers?

Have you heard of an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 plan in school conversations? These specially designed plans help keep individuals with disabilities on the educational roadmap.

General education teachers, special education teachers and administrators can request an evaluation to consider an IEP if data shows a pattern of low achievement...but what if you notice challenges before the school does?

“Which is better, an IEP or a 504 plan?”

This article will help you answer these questions and develop an understanding of both educational plans that are available depending on your child’s unique needs.

This is an image of a road that states: IEP & 504 plans are roadmaps to keep students with disabilities on the path to success"

Table of Contents

What are IEP and 504 plans and where do they come from?

IEP and 504 plans were put in place to ensure students are all receiving an appropriate education.

The motivation behind the creation of these plans can be summed up in this message:

The U.S. Department of Education is committed to ensuring that all children have access to a high-quality education provided in a safe, supportive, and predictable learning environment free from discrimination; filled with healthy, trusting relationships; and one that ensures each child’s social, emotional, academic, and function, growth and development. U.S. Department of Education (2022)

504 & IEP plans can be pursued if a student has a disability that is impacting the ability to learn based on observations and data.

Where do they come from?

  • The IEP falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the national special education law that provides a free appropriate public education, through special education and related services, to students who qualify under specific eligibility categories.

  • The 504 plan was created with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against students based on their disability.

Individualized Education Plans

An individualized education program includes 3 parts:

  1. Background of test results and present performance highlighting student's strengths and weaknesses

  2. Specific academic, physical, life skills, and/or social/emotional goals

  3. Services with specific minutes and accommodations in the classroom or testing environment that the student needs to reach those goals

    • "Least restrictive environment" is also addressed, to ensure the student is not inappropriately placed in special education beyond what is necessary

There are 13 categories for qualification:

  • Autism

  • Deaf-blindness

  • Deafness

  • Emotional Disturbance

  • Hearing Impairment

  • Intellectual Disability

  • Multiple Disabilities

  • Orthopedic Impairment

  • Other Health Impairment (OHI) (i.e. attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)

  • Specific Learning Disability (SLD)

  • Speech or Language Impairment (SLI)

  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

  • Visual Impairment (VI)

Once qualified, K–12 students can have access to an IEP under the law, however, it is no longer a legally binding document after high school or age 21.

The 504 plan

Under this plan, any organization that receives federal funding must provide the same educational opportunities regardless of disability.

Its aim: remove barriers and level the academic playing field.

To qualify for one:

A student must have a diagnosis for a physical or emotional disability, or impairment (e.g., ADHD) that restricts one or more major life activities (e.g., attention, class participation). ADDitude Editors (2022)

This is an image of a girl with headphones working on an iPad.

What are accommodations?

An accommodation is a change in the environment, curriculum format, or tools that allows a student with a disability to gain access to content or complete assigned tasks.

Accommodations can be provided in the following ways:

  • Physical environment

    • i.e. preferential seating, minimizing distractions

  • Adjustments to instructional methods

    • i.e. allowing processing time, chunking or simplifying verbal/written instructions, minimizing problems on a page

  • Changes to testing procedures

    • i.e. extended time on tests, quiet environment, instructions being read aloud

  • Tools to support regulation & response

    • i.e. access to assistive technology or sensory/counselor rooms for stress reduction

For more accommodation ideas, specifically to consider for disabilities recognized by a 504 plan, visit: 504 Accommodations Guide.

What is FAPE?

FAPE is the acronym for free and appropriate public education.

It applies to both IEPs and 504 plans.

FAPE covers four key components:

  • Free (No cost to families)

  • Appropriate (The individual needs of the student will be addressed through the IEP/504 plan)

  • Public (All students have the right to attend public school and access general education)

  • Education (Equal educational access for all students)

As part of section 504, there are requirements to provide all students with disabilities an appropriate education and provide services that:

(1) are designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met; and (2) satisfy Section 504’s requirements for evaluation and placement, educational setting, and procedural safeguards.

FAPE is also an essential component of the law that governs special education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) provides qualifying students with disabilities with IEPs.

These individual plans allow public schools to appropriately meet student needs and ensure they are receiving FAPE.

As stated in Federal Law, the purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Act is to:

(A) ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living;
(B) ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected; and
(C) assist States, localities, educational service agencies, and Federal agencies to provide for the education of all children with disabilities {Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004)}

Understanding the educational right to FAPE can help you:

  • Create strong partnerships with educators and administrators.

  • Advocate for the rights of your student to appropriate services and accommodations that will help them access the curriculum.

  • Understand that as a parent or guardian, you have specific rights

What are the differences between a 504 & an IEP?

Now that you have an understanding of what they are, why they are important, and recognize that they are both free...which one should you consider pursuing for your child? What are the differences?

To put it IEP provides accommodations and direct instruction that may be provided by a special education teacher or specialists, and the 504 primarily provides accommodations by the general education teacher, with access to minimal services (i.e. counseling, specialist check-ins).

IEP: Disability must prevent their ability to fully benefit from the curriculum→ requiring specialized instruction and accommodations.

504: Disability only hinders their ability to learn in the general education classroom and requires accommodations to access the general education curriculum.



Student must have one of 13 specific qualifying disabilities and disability must affect access to curriculum.

​Must have a disability, defined more broadly and disability must affect access to curriculum.

An initial IEP plan cannot be created without the following members present: A psychologist, special education teacher, service providers in areas of need, administrator, parents and teachers.

A team of teachers, parents and specialists create the plan. The team can consist of any individuals who know the child and can understand any evaluation data and student needs.

Accommodations and modifications can be provided including additional curriculum with direct instruction to address deficits.

Accommodations and limited modifications to support access equal to other students. No alternate academic curriculum.

Related services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, behavior support and social skills may be provided if necessary.

Changes to the learning environment can be provided including accommodations or specific related services if necessary for academic access. Not all related services provided.

Instruction can be provided in the general education or special education (resource room) environments.

All instruction is provided in the general education classroom (some exceptions with counselor or related services, but not Special Ed.)

Student specific goals and regular progress monitoring; plan required to be reviewed annually. Student must requalify every three years through evaluations from all specialists.

No goals; no specific requirement to review plan but typically done annually.

Requires parental consent to implement and develop; parents can disagree with portions of the plan and accept other parts.

Requires parental consent to implement but not required for development. Parents can disagree or reject the plan.

Special education teachers are part of the whole process, from initial assessment to direct instruction in order to address needs.

Special education teachers are not responsible for implementing the accommodations for the student.

An IEP has required components and strict timelines

No formal structure or timeline requirements

This short video is a good recap of the differences: IEP vs. 504 Plan: What Is the Difference Between IEP and 504 Plan?

This is an image describing a few differences of an IEP and 504
IEP vs 504

Final Thoughts

So..."which is better, an IEP or 504 plan?”

Hopefully this quick glimpse at both options helped you with your question.

If you're still unsure how they may specifically benefit your child, discussing your concerns with educators & administrators at your child's school is a good start.

If you are trying to pursue assessment or want to discuss potential accommodations for your child, an executive function specialist may be able to support you through the process. You can also take a look at our article: How do I write a letter requesting a special education evaluation?

If you wonder if executive function coaching can be included in an IEP, view our article: How to advocate for executive function coaching services (as part of the IEP).

Look out for our future articles that will cover more specifics, such as, Legal Timelines, LRE/Child Find and Procedural Safeguards/Parent Rights.


About IDEA. U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Retrieved from:

ADDitude Editors (2022). What Is an IEP? Everything You Need to Know About IDEA, IEPs, and 504 Plans. Retrieved from:

The Understood Team (2023). The Difference Between IEPs and 504 plans. Retrieved from:

University of Washington. (2022). What is the difference between accommodation and modification for a student with a disability? DO-IT. Retrieved from:,a%20regular%20course%20of%20study.

U.S. Department of Education. (2022) Supporting Students with Disabilities and Avoiding the Discriminatory Use of Student Discipline Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Retrieved from:

U.S. Department of Education (2022). Questions & Answers: Addressing the Needs of Children with Disability and IDEA’s Discipline Provisions. Questions & Answers. Office of Special Education & Rehabilitative Services. July 19. Retrieved from:

About the author

Kelsey Sinclair is an executive function specialist with EFS. She was a special educator for over 10 years in public school settings. She specializes in social/emotional skill development and provides interventions to those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. Kelsey utilizes a strengths-based approach to coaching, supporting her students toward independence and a positive self-concept.

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1 Comment

May 02, 2023

So helpful! Thanks for sharing.


About 👋

EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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