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Demystifying IEP’s & 504 Plans

Thanks to revolutionary laws such as the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) more children with disabilities attend their local schools than ever before. While this has opened many doors to children with varying abilities and offers many social opportunities, it is incumbent on schools to provide each student access to an educational program that suits his/her needs and maximizes his/her ability to benefit from his/her education.

We will take a closer look at IEP’s and 504 accommodations to help you understand what these documents are, how they are generated, who is involved in creating them, how they are implemented, and what rights you have as a parent.

What is the difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan?

An IEP (Individual Education Plan) is a legal document that is created for students who receive special education and related services. Each IEP is unique and specific to the student. The goal of an IEP is to delineate the supports and services that will be in place for the child with a disability (as defined by the educational system, rather than the medical establishment).

A 504 Plan is for students with disabilities who require “reasonable accommodations” only. It is a document that spells out the modifications, adaptations and accommodations that will be put into place for a specific student to ensure that he/she has an equal opportunity to succeed academically. Children with a 504 plan are not eligible for related services, such as occupational, physical or speech therapy.

There are two key differences between IEP’s and 504 Plans. An IEP is completed in accordance with the IDEA, which is a federally funded mandate. Additionally, IEP’s are designed to include special education services, and related services may be provided in order to enable a student to benefit from his/her special education program. They are generally more comprehensive than a 504 Plan. 504 Plans are subsumed under the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Section 504. Funding is not federally mandated and adherence is monitored by the Office of Civil Rights.

Are there similarities between the two types of plans?

There are many similarities between an IEP and a 504 Plan, including:

  • Both plans are written and implemented by the school

  • The documents are developed by designated professionals that may include school administrators, teachers, related service providers and family members

  • Both plans are updated annually in order to remain relevant

  • Each document is unique and specific to the student

  • Depending on the district, students can receive similar accommodations, and modifications in order to enable them to benefit from their educational program

Which is a better fit for your child?

It can be difficult to determine which plan is more suitable for your child.  In general, students requiring special education services will have an IEP to support the child’s ability to benefit from those special education and therapy services. 504 Plans are most relevant for students who are in regular education classes and require “reasonable accommodations” to address their needs, but do not require special education.

How can my child’s private occupational (OT) , physical (PT) or speech therapist (ST) be involved in the planning process?

It can be highly beneficial to have your child’s private therapist’s input when planning for and creating an IEP and 504 Plan. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Provide the school with any written evaluations that were done

  • If the evaluation was not recent, ask your therapist to submit a progress note indicating your child’s current level of functioning

  • Consider bringing your child’s therapist to the IEP meeting

  • Have your child’s therapist read, review, and amend your child’s current level of functioning and the therapy goals that are included in the IEP, to ensure that all the goals are appropriate for your child

  • If your child will be getting OT, PT or ST both in school and privately, be sure to include a statement in the IEP that the therapists must be in regular contact

What all parents should know before attending a meeting:

Be prepared: Get copies of reports and evaluations prior to the meeting.

  • Know your rights

  • Be involved in the process. Be clear about your priorities and state them unambiguously

  • Know your child, his/her needs and what kinds of accommodations, modifications, and services you would like implemented

  • Be certain that the plan addresses the needs you have identified and is a good fit for your child. Prior experimentation with modifications that seem to work should guide you

  • If there is a behavioral plan, be sure that you are comfortable with it

  • Get input from professionals who know your child well.  A school visit by a professional on your team prior to the meeting can be invaluable

  • Make sure that modifications and accommodations are highly specific

  • Listen carefully and take notes

  • Understand the proceedings.  If you do not adequately comprehend what is being said in education jargon, ask that it be restated in a way that you understand

  • It is worthwhile for both parents to attend the meeting. If not, the parent attending can bring a grandparent or an outside professional for support. It often takes two to grasp the proceedings and take in all of the information being presented

  • Do not feel compelled to agree to anything, or sign anything on the spot, especially if your spouse is not with you. Be sure to thank all those present for their interest in and support of your child. Then state that you want to put as much thought into the plan as school personnel did, so you would like to take the document home and study it and get back to the school in a timely manner


Written by Aviva Goldwasser, MS, OTR and Dr. Chaye Lamm Warburg, DPS, OTR

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