IEPs and 504 Plans:
What Are They and Which is Better?

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: February 25, 2020

While there are some similarities between Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans, which is better depends on circumstances. Let’s look at a comparison.

The table below outlines some (but not all) of the differences between IEPs and 504 Plans, and it’s followed by considerations that might make one better than the other.

  IEP 504 Plan
What It Is A specific, written plan for a student’s special education from kindergarten through grade 12 (or age 21, when required). A plan detailing how a school will provide needed support and remove barriers for a student with a disability. The Plan has no age limit, can be effective up through college years and beyond, and can include work.
What It Does Provides individualized special education and related services to meet the student’s specific needs. Provides services and changes to the school/learning environment so the student can learn alongside his/her peers.
Prevailing Law The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal special education law for students with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law to stop discrimination against people with disabilities.

The student must have one or more of the 13 specific disabilities1 listed in IDEA


The student must need specialized instruction to make progress in school due to one or more disabilities that affect the student’s educational performance and/or ability to learn in and benefit from the general education curriculum.

The student can have any disability that substantially limits one or more basic life activities, including learning, reading, communicating, and thinking


The disability must interfere with the student’s ability to learn in a general education classroom.2

Who’s Involved? By law, an IEP is created by an IEP team that must include:
  • The student’s parent or caregiver
  • At least one of the student’s general education teachers
  • At least one special education teacher
  • A school psychologist or other specialist who can interpret evaluation results
  • A district representative with authority over special education services
And all of them, with a few exceptions, must be present for all IEP meetings.

A 504 Plan is created by a team of people who are familiar with the student and who understand the evaluation data and special services options. This might include:

  • The student’s parent or caregiver
  • General and special education teachers
  • The school principal
Clearly, the rules for creating 504 Plans are much less restrictive than the rules for creating an IEP.


It’s a written document that must include, among other things:

  • Current levels of function and academic performance: How the student is doing in school now
  • Annual education goals for the student and how progress toward those goals will be tracked
  • Services to be provided, which might include special education and other needed services
  • When, how often, and for how long services will be provided
  • Any changes (accommodations) that will be made to the student’s learning environment
  • Any changes (modifications) to what and/or how the student is expected to learn subject matter
  • How the student will participate in standardized tests
  • How the student will be included in general education classes and other school activities

A 504 Plan doesn’t have to be a written document, and, while there is no standard 504 Plan, it typically includes:

  • Specific accommodations, supports, or services for the student
  • Who will provide each service
  • Who will ensure Plan implementation
How Often It’s Reviewed The IEP team must review the IEP at least once a year, and the student must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether services are still needed. Generally, 504 Plans are reviewed each year, and a reevaluation is done every three years or when needed, although the rules vary by state.
Funding/Costs States receive additional funding for students with IEPs, and students receive the services at no charge.

States don’t receive extra funding for students with 504 Plans, but the federal government can take funding away from programs (including schools) that don’t meet their legal duty to serve students with disabilities.

Students receive these services at no charge.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds can’t be used to serve students with 504 Plans.

Examples of situations when a 504 Plan might be preferable:

  • When accommodations are needed beyond 12th grade (or age 21) and/or in a federally funded work environment.3
  • For students with ADD/ADHD who don’t need specialized instruction but would benefit from additional time, a less distracting environment for tests, and accommodations such as preferential seating or more frequent breaks.
  • For students on the Autism Spectrum who are doing okay academically but need social skills assistance or specific accommodations.

Conversely, an IEP is a better option for students who need more than just accommodations in order to do well in school. Further, IEPs often mandate special education, and that opens the door to multiple related potential benefits.

1 Here are the 13 categories of special education as defined by IDEA:

  • Autism
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment
2 Section 504 defines a disability as a mental or physical impairment or a record of impairment. Students regarded as having such an impairment are also understood to have a disability. Students are considered to be disabled if they’re substantially limited in their major life activities. This includes activities and abilities such as, but not limited to, self-care, breathing, walking, seeing, performing schoolwork, speaking and learning. Many students with learning disabilities don’t appear to be substantially limited in life, and, while it might not be obvious that they even have a disability or a disorder, those students might need special services in school.

Students whose conditions don’t substantially limit a major life activity are excluded from eligibility. For example, the mere medical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) isn’t sufficient for students to qualify under Section 504 if the student has no problems in school and can’t demonstrate a need for special services in the classroom. Many students with ADD/ADHD don’t need special services or special education classes but might, instead, be given coping mechanisms that successfully manage the disorder in mainstream classrooms.

Conversely, students with severe ADD/ADHD may need special services in school, as is typically determined through formal assessments, reviews of educational records, formal observations, medical data, and parent and teacher reports, among other things. Because their effects would significantly impact students’ abilities to learn, inabilities to attend to instruction or to tolerate a classroom environment are examples of problems that could qualify a student with ADD/ADHD as disabled under Section 504.

3 Section 504 applies to public and private elementary and secondary schools, as well as to colleges and employers that receive federal funding.

Topics: Special Needs 504 Plan ADHD IEP LD

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