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Which is better, a 504 Plan or an IEP?

I am often asked “which is better a 504 Plan or an IEP?”  My response always starts with “it depends.”  That’ s a hard question to answer, because they both serve different purposes and have their own strengths. In a broad sense, they are both detailed plans, created by the school and parents, to outline how a student with a disability will learn. A 504 Plan and an IEP are both intended to protect a student with a disability to ensure that they are learning in the least restrictive environment.

A 504 Plan and an IEP also have unique differences. The way in which a student qualifies for services under each plan is a major difference. It is more difficult to qualify for special education services and receive an IEP.   They both require that a student have a documented disability, but there are additional requirements beyond having that disability to receive Special Education services.  A student must meet criteria under one of the categories of special education.  Each of those categories have specific criteria mandated by the Department of Education.  In addition to having a disability, there must be clear data to support that the disability creates an adverse impact on educational performance and that specialized instruction is essential for the child to be successful.  In other words, a student can have a disability, yet not qualify for special education services or an IEP.

To qualify for a 504 Plan, a student must have a disability that affects a major life function. That disability does not have to be one of the 14 categories outlined by the Department of Education.  It can be any mental or physical disability.  That disability has to impact a “major life function.”  Unlike an IEP, a “major life function” does not have to be educational impact.

Examples of students who have a disability and benefit from a 504 Plan, rather than an IEP:

– A student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder who is doing well academically, but need social skills assistance or a specific accommodations such as a visual calendar.

-A student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that does not need specialized instruction, but would benefit from additional time in a less distracting environment for tests and accommodations such as preferential seating or physical breaks.

When is a 504 Plan is a better option?:
A 504 Plan is a better option when the student is able to function well in a regular education environment with accommodations. The 504 is generally less restrictive than the IEP, and it is also less stigmatizing.

When is an IEP is the better option?:
An IEP is a better option for students with a disability that is adversely impacting education. Students who need more than just accommodations to regular education would need an IEP. Eligibility in Special Education opens the door to a variety of related services and supports.

In answer to the question, “Which is Better, a 504 Plan or an IEP?”…. It depends on the child and his or her unique needs. I would recommend that parents look carefully at both options before pursuing one over the other.

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