eligibility Kids and Families Special Education

The difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan

What is the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan? Both are documents created to support students but IEPs and 504 plans are not the same.

By Kate Rabb

The difference between an IEP and a 504 plan is complicated, like most things in special education law. In short, an IEP provides many more procedural protections, and often– but not always– more “direct services” than a 504 plan, but of course that is a highly simplified explanation. Students with both IEPs and 504 Plans have documents from their schools describing their special needs and how the school will meet them. The difference between these documents can be mysterious to parents. It is important to know the difference, so you can evaluate whether school is appropriately and effectively meeting your child’s needs. Remember, we’re always here to help! 


Federal law guarantees students with disabilities a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE).  FAPE is guaranteed under both the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act (IDEA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Under the IDEA, these services and accommodations are included in an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, they are included in a Section 504 Plan. A child who is found eligible under either the IDEA or Section 504 will receive services and/or accommodations specifically tailored for them to make progress in school. Yet, the laws are different and so are their guarantees. 

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

An IEP is an individualized program of education designed to provide supports and services to your child’s individual needs.  It is based on an analysis of your child’s academic performance and behavior and is meant to provide the support they need to progress academically. IEPs usually include special services, such as reading or math intervention, direct instruction from a special educator, services like speech or other therapies, and also accommodations, such as extra time, as well as specialized placements in special education specific settings. When your child reaches a certain age, it also will include a plan for transitioning out of the public school system.

IEPs are available only to students who have disabilities that fall under the thirteen categories listed in the law. It is not enough for your child to have a disability as defined by the IDEA. The IEP team (which includes you!) must also find that the student’s disability negatively affects their performance in school in order to find the student eligible for an IEP. If both of these criteria are met, the student will be eligible to receive an IEP and special education services under the IDEA. If your child is not found eligible for an IEP and you suspect that they are eligible, you have the right to appeal.

One of the benefits of having an IEP is how clearly the law spells out procedures related to evaluating the student, the creation and regular amendment of the IEP, and the protections provided to families throughout the process, including appealing decisions made by the IEP team. 

504 Plan

A 504 Plan typically includes accommodations (and sometimes services) your child needs to learn in the general education setting with their peers, and is provided without additional charge to your family. To be eligible for a 504 Plan, your child needs to meet two separate criteria. First, your child needs to have a disability. There are many more disabilities that fall under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, so the categories are not nearly as limited as those listed in the IDEA. Second, your child’s disability must substantially limit a major life activity. In the context of school, this life activity can include tasks such as learning, communicating, and thinking. It can be related to school work, such as a problem with executive functioning, to participating in a school activity, such as a severe allergy, or to the need for physical accommodations. In the first instance, the 504 Plan might relate to written assignments and due dates. In the second instance, the 504 Plan might include accommodations that allow your child to eat safely with friends during lunch and snack time. The eligibility requirements for a 504 plan are, by law, designed to be more liberal than those for an IEP. When in doubt, school teams are directed to find students eligible for a 504 plan. 

While 504 Plans can provide your child with essential accommodations, they do not provide you with the same level of procedural safeguards as are guaranteed to families whose children have IEPs (although there are some). There also are fewer rules governing who is included in the team that creates the 504 Plan, what goes into the plan, and how often the plan is revised. 

However, a common misconception is that no “services” can be put on a 504 plan– this is simply not true. If a student needs services of a school psychologist or speech pathologist for example, it may be possible to include that on a 504 plan.  

The law requires that if a K-12 student is eligible for both an IEP and a 504 Plan, they should receive an IEP. Students should not have both a 504 and an IEP (some schools do this). If the child qualifies for an IEP, any accommodations or other documentation that would go on the “proposed” 504 plan, should go on the IEP. 

College or University Accommodations Under 504

Unlike the IEP (under IDEA) which applies only to children who have not yet graduated from high school, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act can provide needed services and accommodations to a student enrolled in a program of education at a college or university that receives federal funding. If you or your child is eligible to receive accommodations in a post-secondary program, the university typically has to provide the accommodations and services that are necessary for participation in the school program. However, this is not the case if the necessary services would either fundamentally alter the academic program or impose an undue burden on the college or university. 

If you still have questions about IEPs and 504 plans, or think you need the services of an education attorney in Maryland, please feel free to schedule a call with our attorneys.

This blog post is for informational purposes only. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.