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IEPs and 504 Plans… Oh My!

October 1, 2021

Understanding IEPs and 504 Plans is a great place to start in your advocacy journey.

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Navigating the school system, IEPs, and 504 plans with a child with ADHD can be stressful. As a parent, you’re looking to get your child the help they need. You’re also pushed into a new world of terms and policies. It feels downright mysterious.

I’ve lost count of the number of families who asked me where to move in the entire Phoenix area in order to go to the school that would best support their child. Families are willing to move to make the school process easier!

Understanding Individualized Education Programs (IEP) and 504 Plans is a great place to start in your journey. While there is a lot to know about these two documents (seriously, I took a full course in graduate school focused on IEPs and 504 Plans), I’ve narrowed it down to the 5 most important things you need to know.

Before jumping into these 5 important points about IEPs and 504 Plans, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what IEPs and 504 Plans are:

Individualized Education Program (IEP): A legal, written document that lays out a plan for the special education instruction, services, and supports a child with a disability needs to be successful in school. Individualized Education Programs are completely, well, individualized.

Section 504 Plan: A legal (and usually written) plan to prevent discrimination against kids with disabilities. It includes accommodations and supports to help the child access the same general curriculum as their peers.

OK, now let’s dive in…

1. Your child must have a disability to be eligible… but disability definitions differ.

To get an IEP, the school team must determine through a comprehensive evaluation process that your child meets specific criteria. Thirteen disability categories listed in IDEA (more on that below) are considered. These include:

Specific learning disability, other health impairment, autism spectrum disorder, emotional disturbance, speech or language impairment, visual impairment, deafness, hearing impairment, deaf-blindness, orthopedic impairment, intellectual disability, traumatic brain injury, or multiple disabilities.

This disability must affect your child’s educational performance or their ability to benefit from the general curriculum. Your child must require special instruction or modifications (discussed further below) to make progress in school.

A 504 Plan does not require extensive testing. Of consideration should be outside evaluations, grades, attendance, state testing, observations, and school discipline records. Under a 504 Plan, your child could have any disability that impacts their learning (such as ADHD, asthma, cancer, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.). But they must only require accommodations to the curriculum (not modifications).

In general, Section 504 has a broader definition of qualifying disabilities. Thus, children with disabilities who do not qualify for an IEP often will quality for a 504 Plan. Ultimately, the child typically needs a diagnosis documented by a doctor to be eligible for a 504 Plan. The disability must substantially limit one or more of the child’s basic life activities (learning, reading, communicating, thinking, etc.).

Keep in mind, with both 504 Plans and IEPs, having a medical diagnosis does not guarantee eligibility. This fact can be very confusing and frustrating to parents.

For instance, you were concerned about your child’s behavior. You sought out an evaluation by a child psychologist. The psychologist diagnosed your child with ADHD. You decide to take the report to your school to have a meeting to get your child an IEP. But, the team determines your child is not eligible for those specialized services. A medical diagnosis does not automatically equate to school services.

2. You’re a member of your child’s school team… kind of.

When it comes to the IEP process, you are absolutely part of the process. In fact, the law is very specific that the IEP team must include a parent. This is in addition to a general education teacher, a special education teacher, a school psychologist, speech language pathologist, or someone with the knowledge to interpret data/testing results, and a district representative.

As the parent in this IEP process, you must receive information from the school within certain time frames. Your consent is required to complete testing and provide services.

504 Plans do not mandate parent involvement. The team should have people who are familiar with the child (hmmm… sounds like you!) and people who understand evaluation data and service options. I haven’t met a family excluded from the 504 Plan process (which is why I say “kind of” in the title). I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I’m just saying it’s uncommon.

As a parent in the 504 Plan process, the school does have to get your permission to place your child on a 504 Plan. The school must provide you a copy of the plan if the team determines that your child is eligible. But, I urge you to be a part of the process; you know your child best.

3. IEPs and 504 Plans hold the same legal “weight”.

IEPs and 504 Plans hold the same legal weight. The school has to implement what’s detailed in the document. One document is not more powerful than the other legally, and both come from federal law.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that covers the IEP process. IDEA is a special education law for children with disabilities, focused on ages 3 to 21 years.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the federal law that covers the 504 Plan process. ADA is not specifically for children. This federal law protects individuals with disabilities of all ages.

4. Accommodations versus modifications… what does your child need?

When determining if an IEP or 504 Plan is the right fit, the school team will probably discuss if your child has a need for accommodations and/or modifications.

Accommodations: changes to how a child learns the material while still meeting standard expectations. Examples include preferred seating, audio books, sensory tools, extra work time, and planner use support. They help the child access the standard curriculum.

Modifications: changes to the curriculum or how it is taught. This may include specialized instruction (e.g., reading or writing instruction with a special education teacher), different homework, alternate tests, varied grading standards, speech therapy, and occupational therapy.

Children requiring only accommodations may just need a 504 Plan. Children requiring accommodations and modifications will need an IEP. This is where more confusion often sets in, however. Determining IF and WHAT accommodations or modifications are needed can be a gray area. It will also vary from school to school and IEP team to IEP team (*sigh*).

5. Goal setting and progress monitoring differ.

Goal setting and progress monitoring are really where an IEP shines. IEPs commonly include:

(i) how your child is currently performing in school

(ii) goals in applicable areas of need (e.g., reading, math, fine motor, speech)

(iii) detailed lists of services (such as special education, therapies, extended school year) to reach those goals

(iv) the timing of services

(v) needed accommodations

(vi) standardized testing specifications.

Yearly, goals and progress are reviewed. Re-evaluations for children with IEPs happen every 3 years.

A 504 Plan is a lot looser in most of these areas. A 504 Plan should detail the accommodations and supports the child needs, as well as who will provide those services. There are no specific goals or timelines for re-evaluation. The plan should be reviewed at least yearly, and the child should be re-evaluated every 3 years or before a significant change in placement.

In many ways, an IEP is more robust than a 504 Plan. However, not every child is in need of the modifications and services that come with an IEP. 504 Plan accommodations serve many children very well.

I urge parents raising kids with ADHD to at least pursue the 504 process. Having the protection of a 504 Plan can provide you peace of mind. It can also smooth the transition between classrooms, grade levels, and schools. Additionally, when it comes time for obtaining accommodations for testing in high school (e.g., ACT or SAT), you will need to have documentation that your child has previously received accommodations in school. Having documentation in the elementary years can be beneficial later on in life.

Remember, you are your child’s best advocate.

Keep at it!

Lori, Katie, and Mallory

The contents of this site are opinions of The Childhood Collective PLLC partners unless otherwise noted. The information on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any type of medical condition and is not intended as personalized medical/psychological advice. Any decision you make regarding your and your family’s health and medical treatments should be made with a qualified healthcare provider.

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  1. […] the myths and challenges associated with dyslexia, and equipping you to advocate for your child and develop a plan to help. […]

  2. […] Most children who just have an anxiety diagnosis are served through a 504 plan. This means, they can generally do well with just some accommodations at school. However, some children have such significant anxiety that they are unable to attend school or have additional learning issues that are occurring alongside the anxiety. In this case, an IEP may be needed. We generally look at providing an IEP when a child is in need of specialized instruction at school to make progress. Click here to learn more about IEPs and 504 plans. […]

  3. Al says:

    How does these both compare to a BIP? (Behavioral plan)

    • Lori Long says:

      A behavior plan can be done at any time, for any student. So a student who doesn’t have a 504 plan or an IEP, might receive a behavior plan. Schools will often do a behavior plan first, to see how a child responds to that intervention, before moving to an IEP immediately. Children on an IEP and a 504 plan can also receive a behavior plan. They can be very effective for children with ADHD at school.

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