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IEPs? 504s? What do they mean?

Anyone unfamiliar with the American public school system will probably not be familiar with 504s and IEPs, and for good reason. But when becoming a teacher, it is important to know what they are and how they’re used.

Each state and school district has their own plan for implementing and carrying out 504s and IEPs.  It’s important to speak with your school’s leadership to understand how these programs are at play in your school. While schools and districts may vary in their execution of 504s and IEPs, it’s important to understand the federal fundamentals of each. This way, you can help your students, properly inform parents, and protect yourself in the classroom.

First, let’s describe each procedure.

504 Plans

President Richard Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in September of that year, officially replacing the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law, often referred to as the Rehab Act, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.

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

The law defines an individual with a disability as:

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

It is up to schools to decide if a student has a disability, condition, or disorder that falls under Section 504. This is typically determined by observing the behavior and grades of the student, speaking with the student’s current and prior teachers, reviewing discipline and attendance records, and other information. The school forms a committee of leadership, including the child’s current teacher, to assess a child. The role of the committee is to determine:

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

Committees will create what is known as a 504 plan (aka a 504). The plan places the needs and accommodations of the student into writing and is updated annually to ensure the student is receiving the most effective accommodations for their disability.

Parents are not required to be a part of the decision making committee (this typically varies per school district), but are required to be notified that their child is being evaluated for 504 services.


In 1990, the United States Congress reauthorized the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known commonly as IDEA. IDEA states that a school system 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 found to be eligible by both federal and state disability standards. IEPs cover:

  1. The services to be provided for the student and how often
  2. Describes the child’s present levels of performance and how the child’s disabilities affect academic performance
  3. Specifies accommodations and modification to be provided to the student

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

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

If it is found that a student has a qualifying disability, the Individualized Education Plan is created. IEPs are long documents that include the student’s current cognitive abilities (test scores, behavior referrals, etc.), goals for the child, and lists accommodations and modifications necessary.

The IEP will also include the Offer of Free and Appropriate Public Education (known as FAPE), which is a binding contract between the 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.

The plan is reviewed and updated annually.

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

As you might be able to tell, IEPs are applied to much more serious cases. In fact, there are 13 specific categories of disability a child must fall under to require an IEP. They are:

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-blindness
  3. Deafness
  4. Emotional disturbance
  5. Hearing impairment
  6. Intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation)
  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


Students with IEP plans may have disabilities (often intellectual disabilities) that require the student to be taught in a special education classroom. Others may require special equipment in a normal classroom (blind students given work in braille or large font, students with cerebral palsy using special tools, etc.). And still some students with IEPs may need to be excused from class to meet with a specialist, like a speech pathologist.

The qualifications to receive a 504 plan are much more vague and at the discretion of the school. Typically, 504 plans are given to students that will be in a regular classroom and require small but helpful accommodations. Ensuring a student with poor vision sits in the front of the classroom, that a student with a food allergy is taught in a room free of that food (typically peanuts), 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 prepare to be flexible with lesson plans and preparation if any of their students have 504 plans or IEPs. New teachers and teachers in new schools should familiarize themselves with procedures for each. Even if you don’t have any students with either plan, you might be called to a committee for a future student, or need to recommend a current student for a plan.


About The Author

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

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