What’s the Difference Between an Individualized Education Plan and a 504 Plan?

August 20, 2015
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

My wife and I recently sat down to talk with our daughter’s teachers and support staff at our annual Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting. We discussed how our daughter is doing this year with the goals we implemented during the last IEP, and plotted out goals for the future.

And it dawned on me during the meeting that I’m very fortunate to know all of the jargon and lingo for these talks.

Along with all the reading and research I do for CPI, I’ve had the pleasure—and honor—of working with fantastic special educators from all over the world. It’s because of the many Certified Instructors I’ve talked to while working here that I pursued a graduate degree in exceptional education.

So I often come to the IEP discussion with lots of best-practice strategies I’ve picked up over the years. After these meetings, the teachers often receive an email from me with all of the source material I brought up (although I am always a little wary of how accepting they are, because I don’t want to be the parent who comes in and tells them how to do their job). 

But as I looked at my wife, who is a nurse and who is exceptionally good at what she does, the meeting was moving pretty fast and she wasn’t able to keep up with the language we were using.

I paused to think for a moment:

“Is this how it is for most parents who sit in on an IEP?”

Every other word must feel like a foreign language.

I did my best to translate the jargon, and from that point on, my wife felt more welcome to participate in the discussions.

In a time of dwindling school budgets, IEP meetings can turn into negotiations. The last thing I would ever want is for a meeting to turn into an adversarial stand-off, so I tend to come in to these discussions knowing the limitations that educators and schools face.

Yet once a year is far too infrequent for these conversations to take place. We were hearing about things we could have helped with months in advance, such as the fact that a lot of the homework my daughter was supposed to be doing never made it home.

Sharing strategies with what works (and what doesn’t) at school can be incredibly helpful for parents, and sharing the strategies that work (and don’t) at home can be incredibly helpful for teachers.

This strategy-sharing discussion should happen continuously.

Children grow so quickly, and strategies and goals that are appropriate at the start of the school year are (hopefully) outdated by the end of it.

And for many kids, sharing those strategies and goals means there’s a common set of rules and expectations, whether they’re at home or at school.

So in the spirit of sharing, I’d like to point you to a helpful chart I came upon in my research: understood.org’s Difference Between IEPs and 504 Plans.

If you’re a parent like me, you might find this side-by-side chart quite a help.

It outlines the similarities and differences between IEPs and 504s in straightforward language.

And if you’re an educator thinking about how to connect with parents and caregivers this year, share the chart with families to ease discussions for everyone involved.

One of the biggest distinctions between the two types of plans is that with IEPs, a child must have one or more of the 13 disabilities listed in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). With a 504 plan, a child can have any disability.

Here are a few more facts from understood.org about IEPs and 504s:

  • A child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might still be able to get a 504 plan.
  • There’s no payment necessary for either type of plan.
  • With IEPs, states get additional funding for eligible students. With 504 plans, states do not.

The Understood Team also has helpful articles on the laws that protect the rights of people with disabilities and much more.

What other tools and resources do you think would make IEPs and 504 plans more manageable for parents?

Portions of this article were originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior. Certified Instructors, log in to read more JSM articles.

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