Group of Children in class

IEP vs 504 Plan: What’s the Difference?

Navigating the educational landscape can be an overwhelming experience for any parent, but when your child has developmental differences or special needs, it can feel like traversing uncharted territory without a compass.  At Westside Children’s Therapy, we’re here to support you on this journey. Our multidisciplinary approach and tailored interventions create a nurturing space for your child to reach their fullest potential.

We believe in empowering parents to advocate for their child’s educational success. That’s where Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 Plans come in. These plans offer crucial support and resources to help your child thrive within the educational environment.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the differences between IEPs and 504 Plans, discussing the eligibility requirements and services provided under each. Discover how these plans can play a vital role in helping your child thrive both in the classroom and beyond. 

What is an IEP?

IEP stands for “Individualized Education Program”, and is a powerful tool designed to ensure that children with disabilities receive the support and resources they need to be successful in school.  

An IEP is a legally binding document covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that outlines the special education supports, instruction, and services a child will receive from their PreK-12 public school. It is created collaboratively by a team of professionals, including teachers, therapists, school administration, and parents. 

IEPs provide customized educational services and accommodations that promote academic growth, social development, and overall well-being. Each IEP is different and built around the unique needs of the child.

An IEP typically involves two parts:

  1. The special education services and related therapies the child will receive, such as Special Education instruction, Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, and/or time with a Social Worker or School Psychologist. It outlines the frequency, duration, and location of these services, ensuring that they are provided in the least restrictive environment appropriate for the child’s needs. 
  2. Detailed strategies, accommodations, and modifications that will be implemented to support the child’s learning and participation in the classroom.
Children in school setting

Regular progress monitoring is a crucial part of the IEP process. The school team periodically reviews progress towards goals, making adjustments as needed to ensure continuous growth and success. Additionally, IEP meetings are held at least annually to discuss the child’s progress, review and revise goals, and address any concerns or changes in their educational needs.

It’s important to note that parents play a vital role in the IEP process. You are an equal partner in the decision-making and advocacy for your child’s education. Your input, insights, and concerns are valuable contributions to creating an effective and comprehensive IEP.

What is a 504 Plan?

A 504 Plan is also an individualized plan tailored to provide support and meet a student’s educational needs. It is covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is a federal law put in place to end discrimination against people with disabilities.

A 504 Plan focuses on the strategies, accommodations, and modifications that a child may need to support their learning and participation in the classroom. A 504 Plan allows for changes in the learning environment that will allow a child to be successful in the classroom.

Typical 504 Plans may include items like:

  • Preferential seating in the classroom
  • Time for scheduled movement breaks throughout the day
  • Extended time for tests/exams
  • Visual charts and organizers
  • Reduced homework load
  • Time in a social skills group or with a Social Worker
  • Access to fidgets or other sensory tools as needed

A 504 Plan is built collaboratively by the child’s teachers, therapists, and parents. It does not typically include regular progress monitoring, as the focus is on accommodations rather than goals. However, 504 meetings should be held annually to discuss the accommodations and support the child needs moving forward.

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

Though IEPs and 504 Plans are both created to help a child succeed in school, there are a few key differences between them.

IEPs include measurable goals and involve specific services, such as Occupational, Physical, or Speech Therapy, as well as Special Education support. An IEP will outline the specific number of minutes per week each therapist and/or support staff will spend with the student, and the plan will be built around specific and achievable goals for the year. These goals are broken down into smaller parts, to be measured at defined intervals. 

504s are more focused on accommodations within the general learning environment and do not typically provide services like Speech Therapy, though it is possible. They are not covered under special education. They are less formal and structured than IEPs, and there can be significant differences between how different school districts manage 504 Plans.

To qualify for an IEP, a child must have at least one of a set list of disabilities defined under IDEA, and this disability must affect their educational performance and/or their ability to learn in the general education environment. A 504 Plan casts a wider net, covering a child with any disability. This disability must affect their school performance and/or ability to learn. Because Section 504 has a broader definition of a disability than IDEA, it’s possible for a child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP to still get a 504 Plan.

An IEP is updated annually, with a full re-evaluation happening every three years. Similarly, a 504 Plan is updated annually and is typically in place for three years. 

Children learning in a classroom

Should My Child Have an IEP or a 504?

The school team is responsible for conducting an evaluation and determining which plan is appropriate for your child. This will include parent interviews and input, as well as evaluations from each appropriate discipline (Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Physical Therapy, Teachers, School Psychologist and/or Social Worker, etc.).

If the school evaluation determines that your child needs services such as Occupational, Physical, or Speech Therapy, or time with a Special Education or Resource teacher, then an IEP will likely be recommended. If the evaluation determines that your child can be successful with certain accommodations, but does not need specialized services, then they will likely recommend a 504 Plan.

It is within your rights as parents to bring anyone to the review meeting who may have insights into your child and their educational needs, such as a doctor, therapist, or educational advocate.

What is the Difference Between School Therapy and Private Therapy?

You may be wondering if your child needs private therapy in addition to the services they are receiving from their school. 

The answer depends on your child, the services he or she is receiving through school, and if those services provide enough support to manage the overall challenges of their disability. It’s important to note that therapy provided through the school district can only focus on the skills deemed necessary for educational success. Your child may have additional needs that are not met through school services.

For example, Occupational Therapy provided through the school may not be able to focus on sensory sensitivities, feeding issues, toileting issues, or activities of daily living. They will, however, look at your child’s gross and fine motor strength and help them develop the skills necessary to participate in classroom activities. If your child’s challenges also affect them at home, it is likely that they will benefit from private therapy in addition to school therapy.

It is recommended to coordinate communication between school and private therapists. At Westside, our therapists are always happy to communicate with any other providers your child may be seeing. This ensures that we are meeting all of your child’s needs and setting them up for success both in school and outside of school.

If your child has Autism, make sure to check out our ABA therapeutic groups, which work on age-appropriate academic, social, and school-readiness skills. You can learn more here.

If you are interested in learning more about services at Westside, please click the link below or call us at (815) 469-1500, and our team will walk you through the process.