While 504 plans and IEP’s both offer supports and protections to students with disabilities, there are two very important differences between them. First, only IEP’s offer specialized instructional services. In order to qualify for an IEP, you need to demonstrate a disability that impacts your ability to learn; and the need for specialized instruction. For example, a 5th grade student with 3rd grade math skills would need specialized instruction to bring his math skills up to grade level. Second, there are more laws and agencies that govern the implementation of IEP’s. Therefore, there are far more legal protections for IEP’s than 504 plans.
To reinforce the difference between the two, please consider the three sample students below:
Student A – has vision problems, but with glasses, their learning is not impacted (they can see well enough to learn as expected) – The student does not qualify for any special services. They remain in regular education with no special supports.
Student B – even with glasses, the student can only see words on a page when they are in 24 font or larger. This student qualifies for a 504 plan, and they will receive special accommodations such as all written assignments printed in larger font, and special seating in class.
Student C – Even with glasses and accommodations, the student still can’t see well enough to learn at age expected levels. Therefore, they need special instruction/goals to learn braille and to walk with a cane. This student qualifies for an IEP.
If school staff state that your child does not need an IEP because they do not have any academic goals, they may or may not be correct. Student’s can receive IEP’s for non academic goals such as: organization; social skills/communication; and/or executive functioning, if they have a disability in these areas, and they need these skills to benefit from instruction. Put simply, IEP’s can be for non academic goals, despite the existence of that common misperception.