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Special Education Process: IEP vs. 504 Plan

Gifted Education and Support
This article provides information on both the IEP and 504 plans, as well as who qualifies for each of them.

Author: Bennett, A. & Frank, L.
Publisher: 2e Newsletter
Year: January/February 2009

Do you suspect that your child needs special education? Do you think your child will benefit from an IEP or a 504 Plan? How do you know which one would best meet your child’s unique needs?

Two types of written plans – an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 Plan – can be developed and implemented by local school agencies regarding students with identified disabilities. Both are federally mandated but fall under two separate laws. They each provide for the student to receive a free and appropriate education within the least restrictive environment. However, these two plans serve different purposes, according to the needs of the child. Following are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding IEPs and 504 Plans.

What is an IEP and Who Qualifies?
IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) provides federal funds to state and local agencies to guarantee special education and related services to children with disabilities. To be eligible for an IEP under this law, your child must meet these criteria:

  • Be between the ages of 3 and 21
  • Have an identified disability that impedes learning to the point that the child needs specialized instruction in order to close the gap between the child’s own academic achievement a nd that of his/her age peers.

Whether your child has a qualifying disability is determined at an IEP meeting, using the results of standardized assessments as well as other informal and formal data collection. It requires unanimous agreement from the members of a multidisciplinary team that includes one or more of the following: special educator, psychologist, parent, related service provider, and general education teacher. Additional members of the team include other individuals with knowledge or expertise regarding the child, and a representative of the local school agency who is qualified to provide or supervise specially designed instruction for children with disabilities. This person is usually an administrator familiar with the general education curriculum and the resources of the local school agency. The team must agree that your child’s disability falls under one of the 13 federally mandated categories and that it interferes with the child’s education and performance.

What is a 504 Plan and Who Qualifies?
As part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Congress passed Section 504. This civil rights law protects people with disabilities by eliminating barriers and allowing full participation in areas of life such as education and the workplace. Section 504 is intended to prohibit disability discrimination by recipients of federal financial assistance and by public entities.

A 504 Plan is for students who have a disability, have a record of a disability, or are treated as having a disability but do not qualify for special education services under IDEA. For example, let’s say that a child has cerebral palsy. While it does not interfere with the student’s progress in the general curriculum, it does require the child to use special equipment to access his/her education. Therefore, this child would qualify for a 504 Plan.

It’s important to realize that eligibility under Section 504 isn’t a consolation prize for students who do not qualify for special education services under IDEA. Before deciding whether a student is eligible for this type of plan, the child must be assessed and the school team must agree that the child has a substantial and pervasive impairment in order to be eligible under this federal law. The purpose of a 504 Plan is to level the playing field and allow a child to get the accommodations and modifications needed to access the curriculum at the same level as his or her peers.

How Does an IEP Compare with a 504 Plan?
The contents of an IEP are specified by law. This type of plan must contain:

  • A statement of the student’s present level of performance
  • A statement to address how the child’s disability affects participation in the general education curriculum
  • Measurable annual goals and objectives related to the child’s needs resulting from the child’s disability
  • A statement of special education-related services, supplementary aids, and other services to be provided
  • Descriptions of program modifications and supports for school personnel
  • Explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with non-disabled children
  • Explanation as to how the parents of the child will regularly be informed of the child’s progress toward the annual goals
  • A statement of whether the child will take district or state-wide achievement tests and if those tests will be taken with or without accommodations or modifications
  • Explanation of why the child will not participate in such assessments if the IEP team makes that decision
  • A statement of how the student will be tested if the district or state-wide tests are not used
  • Projected date for initiating services and modifications and the frequency, duration, and location of those services and modifications
  • The need for an extended school year
  • Transition requirements for students aged 14 and older.

Unlike the IEP for special education, there are no legal requirements for what should be included in the 504 Plan. Providing a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under Section 504 often means identifying reasonable accommodations to help the student succeed in the classroom.

An accommodation plan usually addresses the following:

  • Nature of the disability and major life activity it limits
  • Basis for determining the disability
  • Educational impact of the disability
  • Necessary accommodations
  • Placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

In summary, both documents (an IEP and a 504 Plan) are federally mandated and require the school system to implement them and adhere to their provisions. However, the federal guidelines are oftentimes vague at best. To complicate matters even more, each state and local school agency has its own interpretations regarding the implementation of these federal laws. The decision as to which, if either, of the documents discussed here would best fit with the needs of your child is one that requires research. Take the time to learn about your parental rights and to fully understand the process of qualifying for either an IEP or a 504 Plan. If you are still unsure if the school system is best meeting the needs of your child, seek the services of a professional skilled in this area.

For more information on IEPs and 504 Plans, 2e Newsletter recommends…

Articles in 2e Newsletter

  • “The IEP,” 2e Newsletter, October, 2004
  • “Answering Some Questions on Goals and Objectives,” October, 2004
  • “Federal Laws and the AD/HD Child,” April, 2004


Andrea Bennett and Lisa Coleman Frank are educational and behavioral consultants and co-founders of The Special Kids Company, Inc., which provides comprehensive diagnostic, intervention, and consultative services for GT/LD and other at-risk children and their families in the Baltimore/Washington, DC, area. Andrea is a certified elementary education and special education teacher with experience in teaching students with disabilities in both inclusive and self-contained learning environments. Lisa is a certified special education teacher and behavior specialist experienced in teaching students with behavioral and academic disabilities.

Disclaimer: The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute’s Resource Library does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational and archival purposes only. The Davidson Institute bears no responsibility for the content of republished material. Please note the date, author, and publisher information available if you wish to make further inquiries about any republished materials in our Resource Library.

Permission Statement

This article first appeared in the May, 2009, issue of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter nd is used here with the authors’ permission.


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