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IEPs? 504 Plans? What do they mean?

Anyone that is not familiar with the American public school system may not know about 504 Plans and IEPs. But for teachers, it is important to know what they are and how they’re used.

Each state and school district has their own plan for implementing 504 Plans and IEPs. It’s important to understand how these programs work in your school. While schools may vary in their execution of 504 Plans and IEPs, it’s important to understand their federal requirements. This way, you can help your students in the classroom.

First, let’s describe 504 plans and IEPs.

504 Plans

In September 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This replaced the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law, which is often referred to as the Rehab Act, prohibits discrimination for disability.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically addresses disability and education, requiring that the needs of students with disabilities be met as adequately as the needs of non-disabled students.

The law defines an individual with a disability as:

  1. A person with a mental or physical impairment that limits one or more major life activity
  2. Someone that has a record of such an impairment
  3. Someone regarded as having such an impairment. For example, the school believes the student has that disability but the student has not been diagnosed by a doctor.

Schools decide if a student has a disability that falls under Section 504. This can be determined by observing the behavior and grades of the student, speaking with the student’s teachers, and reviewing discipline and attendance records. Then, the school forms a committee of leadership to assess the child. The committee determines:

  1. If the child has a disability or condition that negatively impacts their learning ability
  2. What accommodations can be made to assist with the disability to improve learning
  3. How those changes can be implemented in the classroom

Then, the committees create what is known as a 504 plan. The plan places the needs of the student into writing. The plan is also updated annually to ensure the student is receiving the best accommodations for their disability.

Parents are not always required to be a part of the decision making committee, but must be notified that their child is being evaluated for a 504 plan.

Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

In 1990, the United States Congress reauthorized the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA states that a school must try to meet the unique needs of each child with a disability. One requirement of IDEA is the Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

IEPs are created for public school students that are eligible by both federal and state disability standards. IEPs cover:

  1. The services to be provided for the student
  2. The student’s levels of performance and how disabilities affect academic performance
  3. Accommodations to be provided to the student

Unlike 504 plans, parents initiate having their child evaluated for an IEP. The parent contact their child’s teacher, school counselor, or school administration. Then, a group of qualified personnel will decide if an evaluation is needed. This includes the child’s parents, the school’s special education teacher, a district representative, and the child’s doctor. Parents are also heavily involved in the evaluation process.

*Teachers can refer their students for evaluation after attempts have been made to fix problems without special education services.

The Individualized Education Plan is created if a student has a disability. IEPs are documents that provide the student’s current cognitive abilities, academic goals, and necessary accommodations.

The IEP includes the Offer of Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is a contract between parents and the school district. The FAPE specifies how often a student will use district services, such as a speech therapist or physical therapy, throughout the year. The district must meet these terms or they are in violation of the law.

IEPs are updated annually.

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

IEPs are applied to much more serious cases than 504 plans. In fact, there are 13 specific categories of disability a child could fall under to require an IEP. They are:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-blindness
  3. Deafness
  4. Emotional disturbance
  5. Hearing impairment
  6. Intellectual disability
  7. Multiple disabilities
  8. Orthopedic impairment
  9. Other health impairment
  10. Specific learning disability
  11. Speech or language impairment
  12. Traumatic brain injury
  13. Visual impairment


Some students with IEP plans have disabilities that require the student to be taught in a special education classroom, whereas others may require special equipment in a normal classroom. Also, some students with IEPs may need to be excused from class to meet with a specialist. For example, a student with a speech impairment could meet with a speech pathologist.

However, the qualifications to receive a 504 plan are at the discretion of the school. Typically, 504 plans are given to students that will be in a regular classroom. Students may also require small accommodations. For example, ensuring a student with poor vision sits in the front of the classroom, or that a student with mild ADHD be allowed to stand at his desk, can found on 504 plans.

What Teachers Should Know

Teachers should be flexible with lesson plans and preparation if their students have 504 plans or IEPs. Also, new teachers should learn the procedures for each plan. This will also allow you to help meet your students learning accommodations. You may not have students with either plan, but you might be called to a committee for a future student. You also may need to recommend a current student for a plan. To conclude, it is important to know the difference between 504 plans and IEPs. This knowledge will help you teach your students and meet their special accommodations.


Have any suggestions about 504 plans and IEPs for teachers? Leave your response in the comments!

About The Author

Rachael is the Online Marketing Specialist for the American Board. She enjoys blogging, social media, and DIY.