What is the difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan? If your child is struggling in school, how might they receive support? These are important questions with which many parents struggle. Below is a down and dirty explanation.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specifies that children may be found eligible for special education services by a team of educational professionals. This team is typically led by a school psychologist or a process coordinator who may administer tests to the child and gather information from parents and other educational professionals needed per the disability of the child. The IDEA specifies that children may qualify under 13 different eligibility categories. These categories include: autism, blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impaired, speech/language impairment, specific learning disability, traumatic brain injury and visual impairment. This process is part of the special education evaluation.
Medical professionals may diagnose a child with a disability such as autism or ADHD, but this diagnosis does not equate to an educational eligibility. Additionally, the criteria necessary to receive a medical diagnosis and that needed to qualify for an eligibility category are not the same. In order to qualify for special education services under an educational eligibility, the student’s disability must adversely affect the student’s educational performance. To explain, my daughter has a medical diagnosis of ADHD. Her ADHD does NOT adversely affect her academic performance. If her ADHD did have an adverse effect on her educational performance, she may qualify under the category of Other Health Impaired (OHI). In order for this to occur, an educational evaluation is necessary.
IEP v. 504
If a student were evaluated and determined to qualify for special education services by the evaluation team, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) would be created. This IEP is a legal document that ensures a student’s programming is such that progress toward goals is possible and the student is able to access the general education curriculum and environment. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that the student receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This means that the IEP must be designed to meet the student’s needs; the student must receive educational benefit; and the student must be prepared for further education, employment and independent living. The IEP must be reviewed once per year and the evaluation must be completed once every three years.
A 504 is beneficial for a student who has a medical diagnosis that does not affect academic progress. Section 504 states that a disability must “substantially limit one or more basic life activities.” For example, my daughter, Sophie, has a 504 plan because of her ADHD diagnosis. The ADHD does not affect her progress in academic areas, but it does impact her ability to attend and manage her emotions. She receives sensory breaks to calm and attends a group with the counselor to learn about self-regulation. She does not, however, need specialized instruction to make progress in academic areas. This is an example of the reason a student might not qualify for an IEP, but would be eligible for a 504.
The process of special education eligibility and placement can be extremely confusing. A 504 is an alternative that benefits students who may need support, but do not meet criteria under IDEA. If you have questions about the process or further questions about the differences in a medical diagnosis and an educational eligibility or the differences between an IEP and a 504 plan, please do not hesitate to contact me.