504 Plans and IEPs: What Parents Need to Know

So you have discovered that your child has a disability, or perhaps you have endured a psychological evaluation and have a fresh diagnosis to navigate—how will this information impact your child at school? There may be no other school-related phrase that can create more anxiety than the dreaded IEP.


An Individualized Education Program, or IEP as it is more commonly called, is a federally mandated, legally binding document that guides the education of children who require special education services in American public schools. To understand how the IEP or it’s less intensive counterpart, the 504 Plan, are used to protect and support children with disabilities, let’s review some basics about both.

504 Plan:

This is named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law prohibits discrimination of individuals with disabilities in programs funded by the Federal Government, conducted by Federal agencies, employed by the Federal Government, or employed by a Federal Government contractor. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on or related to their disability. 

According to Section 504, a student is protected under the law if they are found to have a mental or physical impairment that limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.

Section 504 does not list specific diagnoses that are covered by the law, but includes examples of physical/mental impairments and mental/psychological disorders that would constitute a disability. 

The law considers “major life activities” to include self-care, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, speaking, hearing, breathing, learning, and working—but this list isn’t exhaustive.

Students who have a disability that affects one or more major life activities, such as learning in the classroom, but who do not require specialized instruction in order to learn, can be supported with a “504 Plan” which provides accommodations and modifications to the classroom environment in order to help the student. For example, preferential seating, use of a timer, checklists, or extra time to complete assignments may be included in a 504 Plan.

Students may qualify for a 504 Plan and NOT an IEP.

It is easier for a student to qualify for services under a 504 plan. A student only needs to have a documented disability that affects major life function, such as learning.

A student might be a good candidate for a 504 plan if despite their disability, they are able to function well in the general education classroom with only accommodations, such as the use of visual schedules.

Most public schools follow a standardized procedure for provision of 504 Plans. A written request (even email!) for a 504 plan or evaluation for a 504 plan can be submitted to any administrative professional at the student’s school, or the special education or general education teacher. The principal, assistant principal, and guidance counselor are all mandated to respond and follow due process. A meeting with the school district’s 504 Coordinator will be scheduled and teachers, parents, and even the student if appropriate will attend the meeting and write the 504 Plan collaboratively.

Collect your data! Document the specific disability the student has and how it impacts one or more major life functions (specifically educationally). Include any relative input from doctors, counselors, psychologists, or other professionals who have served the student.

Include ideas about what accommodations might benefit the student in the educational setting (or school environment in general). For example: visual schedules? Preferred seating? Extra test taking time? A ramp?

Follow up! Don’t be shy about checking in on progress.

504 Plans are somewhat informal, and may be only one page in length. Parents have the right to request review/revision of the 504 Plan as needed, but the school must review at least annually.

IEP Plan:

Time to move on to the IEP, which is covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Reauthorized in 2004). This federal law, which guarantees a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to all children with disabilities, was signed into law by President Ford in 1975 under the title “Education for All Handicapped Children Act”. It is now known as IDEA.

According to IDEA, a “child with a disability” has been evaluated according to the law and results place them in one of the following categories: Autism, Deaf-Blindness, Deafness, Emotional Disturbance, Hearing Impairment, Intellectual Disability, Multiple Disabilities, Orthopedic Impairment, Other Health Impairments, Specific Learning Disability, Speech or Language Impairment, Traumatic Brain Injury, Visual Impairment,  or a child aged 3-9 that is found to have a Developmental Disability.

Students who have a disability covered by the at least one of the 13 categories listed under the law, whose ability to benefit and learn from the general educational curriculum is affected, and who require specialized instruction are supported with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) under IDEA 2004. 

Students who qualify for an IEP are already covered by Section 504, and components of a 504 Plan are included within the IEP.

In addition to having a disability that falls within one of the 13 categories outlined by IDEA, student data must demonstrate that the student’s disability affects their ability to learn and requires specialized instruction to make academic progress.

A student would be a good candidate for an IEP if because of their disability, they need modifications to curriculum or specialized behavior services in order to benefit and progress in the general education classroom. For example, a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), or modified work load/shorter assessments.

The IEP process is more complicated than the 504 Plan process. The state must identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities in the state who need special education and related services. To do so, states conduct "Child Find" activities. A child may be identified by "Child Find," and parents may be asked if the "Child Find" system can evaluate their child. Parents can also call the "Child Find" system and ask that their child be evaluated.

Parents who are concerned for their child’s educational performance may at any time submit a written request for an IEP evaluation to any administrator at the school—principal, vice principal, guidance counselor, or special education teacher. These professionals are mandated to follow up according to due process. Even the general education teacher will forward your request to the right place.

Most schools will want to perform their own Initial Evaluation to determine need for special education services. The law doesn’t state which type of professional must conduct the evaluation, only that they be “qualified” to do so. This could include a school counselor, school psychologist, school psychometrist, special education teacher, reading coach, and/or behavior specialist.

Parents may choose to have their student privately evaluated to confirm that the student has a disability and that the disability impedes learning (via psychological and achievement testing); the school is required by law to consider such an evaluation, but is not required to adhere to its contents. 

Once an initial evaluation has been completed and the school and parents are in agreement that special education services are needed, an IEP meeting is scheduled. The school has 30 calendar days to write an IEP and hold an IEP meeting once the child is determined eligible. 

The IEP Team meets to write the IEP. The team may consist of teachers, administrators (at least one), school counselor, parents, the student (if appropriate), other service providers (speech pathologist/OT), or any guest that parents would like to include who may have knowledge or understanding about the child’s needs to share.

Parents give consent to the IEP and services to be provided, and the child may begin receiving services ASAP. Parents and all school staff responsible for carrying out the IEP are given copies, and staff begin implementing the IEP and measuring progress. Progress toward annual goals is measured and reported to parents according to the IEP.

The IEP is reviewed at least annually, but as often as requested by parents. The IEP may be revised annually or as often as parents and schools are in agreement about changes to be made.

The child must be reevaluated every three years to determine if they continue to be eligible for IEP services, but parents or teachers can request a reevaluation sooner.

If parents are not in agreement with the service provision laid out in the IEP, they can refuse to sign the IEP and continue collaboration efforts with the school. Parents may request an IEP meeting at any time, and the IEP Team is required to meet and discuss revision of the IEP.

If after a meeting, parents and the school are still not in agreement, parents can file a complaint with the State Department of Education and request mediation or a due process hearing, at which mediation must be available.


Securing services for children with disabilities or who need specialized support to experience educational success can be a daunting process. There are a few things parents can do to make the process as smooth as possible. Most importantly, document everything! Keep a paper trail to refer back to if necessary, and utilize written communication whenever possible. Remember, a school evaluation may be free, but a private evaluation is conducted by objective, qualified professionals; a diagnosis does not guarantee IEP or 504 eligibility under the law. Know your rights, and don’t be afraid to hire an advocate to help you through the process. Finally, stand your ground—these laws and procedures have been put into place in order to protect students with disabilities, after all!

For more information:


Holly Sharpe, M. Ed, BCBA, LBA

Licensed Board Certified Behavior Analyst

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