Students with disabilities are entitled to an IEP or a 504 plan in the United States. But this usually takes the parents going through a process to request it. Why should we go through this and is there really any benefit?
Access to an IEP or 504 plan is essential for students with disabilities to have equitable access to their education. These programs allow access to essential therapies and accommodations through the school to provide the support students with disabilities need to be successful.
By the time my own son had turned 9 years old, I’d been through 6 different schools and created an IFSP (in preschool), a 504 plan, and been through the IEP process at 4 public schools including the initial process and the renewal process in addition to yearly rewritings. I’d also been through a process of getting a school to comply with the IEP and even bringing in a disability lawyer.
Reasons Students Need An IEP Or 504
The IEP and 504 plans are not the same or interchangeable. They are usually grouped together when discussing disabilities in the classroom, but they address different situations and have different accommodations they may offer.
A student who qualifies for an IEP or 504 needs it.
Simply put, a 504 plan is for a child with a medical diagnosis that may need some accommodations in the classroom to address the disability.
Consider a child with Celiac Disease that may need the teacher to make accommodations in the classroom or with assignments that include gluten. Or a student with a diagnosis of ADHD who needs extra time to complete assignments or a quiet room alone for test-taking.
On the other hand, a student who requires an IEP has gone through the testing process with the school and has been shown to need accommodations in order to participate in their own education. This may mean speech or occupational therapy, a class for students with disabilities, or specific instruction in addition to what is offered in the classroom.
IDEA is the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” This is the federal law that provides special education services for children in the US. IDEA also provides funding for schools to provide these services.
FAPE is “Free And Appropriate Education.” This is section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This means that people with disabilities are also entitled to a public education free of cost. It also means that the school must provide an “appropriate” education. So an 8th grader reading at a 2nd-grade level should not be in an 8th-grade language arts class.
IDEA and FAPE both apply to the IEP as well as the 504.
In order to qualify for an IEP, a student must undergo a series of tests that may take some time to complete. The results are presented at a meeting with the parents where accommodations are set forth and goals are agreed on.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not easy to qualify for an IEP and schools are not willingly handing them out. An IEP requires a school to do extra work, track goals, and provide services. Most school administrations are not anxious to increase their workload.
The IEP must contain the student’s present levels, measurable goals, student progress, services the student will receive, modifications for staff, services to be received, accommodations needed, and how much time the student will be in the mainstream classroom.
If you are questioning whether your child actually needs the 504 Plan or IEP that they already have, the answer is they need it. Students do well when they are well supported and if they are succeeding in school it means you have found the right set of supports. Removing support when the student is successful is extremely detrimental.
If you question whether your child needs an IEP or 504, it is likely worth going through the testing for qualification. This is the decision-making process for an IEP and whether a child needs it.
Difference Between An IEP And 504 Plan
Although sometimes used interchangeably, IEP and 504 are not the same thing.
In the simplest terms, the 504 Plan is for students with a medical diagnosis, the IEP is for students with an educational diagnosis.
It comes down to the difference between a medical and educational diagnosis. A medical diagnosis is given by a doctor and an educational diagnosis is given by a school psychologist.
For example, if your child has a diagnosis of autism going into school it is a medical diagnosis even if a psychologist was part of the process. Your child would get a 504 plan automatically, but to qualify for an IEP they need to go through IEP testing to see if they qualify for an educational diagnosis.
To get an educational diagnosis of autism, they need to experience symptoms of autism at school that prevent them from participating in their education. This may be getting overstimulated and escalating without intervention, needing specific instruction, or otherwise displaying symptoms of autism that prevent them from staying in the classroom.
On the other hand, a 504 could be given to a student with a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” source Usually, students have a prior diagnosis, but that isn’t a requirement as long as it fits into the description above.
In addition to the reasons for qualification, there are a number of differences in their application. Only an IEP will offer:
- Specialized Instruction
- Setting Goals
- Occupational Therapy
- Speech Therapy
- Placement In Special Education Classrooms
- Almost Anything The IEP Team Deems Neccessary
Things that are covered by both an IEP and a 504:
- Accommodations In The Classroom
- Due Date Extensions
- Testing Accommodations
- Other Disability-Related Accommodations
When deciding whether a 504 or an IEP will be the most appropriate, consider what your student may need the most help with and whether a 504 would cover their needs in the long run. If specialized instruction or therapies may be needed, I encourage you to advocate for IEP testing.
What IDEA Means For Students With Disabilities
The Individuals With Disabilities Act is the law behind the IEP. This is the law that says schools must provide a “free and appropriate education” to all students, regardless of disability.
IDEA creates funding for special education programs for children ages 3-21 and provides that early intervention services be available from birth-2 years.
First passed in 1975, it provided that no families should have to pay for services in public schools due to a disability. It is estimated that approximately 6 million students are funded under IDEA from birth-21 years. source
First, the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, held that it was unconstitutional to segregate children due to race.
Then ESSA, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, made it so there was equal educational access for all students regardless of family resources.
In 1971 there were two cases, PARC v Comonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v Board of Education. Together these made it so students with disabilities and those considered “exceptional” including mental and learning disabilities as well as behavioral issues, must be placed in publicly funded schools and made it illegal to deny these students an education.
In 1972 it was found that 8 million children required special education. 3.9 million received what they needed, or less than half. 2.5 million were not receiving a proper education and 1.75 million weren’t even in school!
In 1975, what was later known as IDEA finally passed and said that any school receiving money from the federal government must provide a free and appropriate public education. In 1976 services were included to mean from birth. It wasn’t until 1986 that the IEP came around and gave parents a say in their disabled children’s education.
In 1990 TBIs and autism were added to the list of disabilities that qualify. It was also amended that there must be a transition period and plans for students leaving public education and progressing into adulthood. Further instruction was given that disabled students must have access to the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers. source
The state of disability access to education before IDEA was passed answers the primary question we have here: why should students have an IEP? Because without an IEP most children were not receiving an adequate education.
FAPE And What It Means On The IEP
FAPE stands for “Free and Appropriate Public Education” and is frequently quoted along with “Least Restrictive Learning Environment.”
So what does this mean in practical terms? It means that the school may not force parents to pay for an education for their child. FAPE is part of the IDEA, details listed above. Prior to IDEA parents were required to pay for extra services their children may need.
It means that if a child requires speech therapy, the school must pay for it and cannot ask the parents for this. It means that the education given must be appropriate, teaching up or down to the needs of the child.
A 4th grader who cannot read is not allowed to be pushed forward to a standard 5th-grade classroom, but should instead be given specific instruction in reading and other subjects at the level that is appropriate for them.
Who Qualifies For An IEP
Under IDEA, there are 13 different categories of disabilities:
- 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
A child must only qualify under one of the above to be eligible to receive an IEP. However, the disability must be shown to impact their ability to participate in their own education or otherwise require specialized instruction.
ADHD is not on this list specifically. ADHD qualifies under “Other Health Impairment” or OHI. OHI can include many different diagnoses, even ones unrelated to an ability to learn such as leukemia. It can also include any number of additional diagnoses such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.
Are They Just Handing Out IEPs To All Kids These Days?
There is a common misconception that schools are handing out IEPs to as many kids as possible. But the truth of the matter is that parents much advocate and request in very specific terms the testing the school must perform in order to qualify for an IEP.
After testing is performed, they must meet specific criteria under one of the 13 qualifying conditions listed in the section above. Simply having a diagnosis isn’t enough for an IEP, there must be something specific they need help with due to that disability.
If your child has no diagnosed disability it does not preclude you from requesting an evaluation. It may make targeting the concern a little more tricky, but the process is the same whether or not there is a current diagnosis.
Schools do receive additional funding from IDEA for students currently on an IEP, which makes some people think that schools are just handing them out. However, IDEA is chronically underfunded and the requirements that an IEP puts on the school can be burdensome from the perspective of the school administration.
Teachers and parents work hard together to get all children the best education they possibly can, together. But sometimes it feels like the school administration is not part of the team and is an adversary instead of an ally.
Deciding Whether Your Child Needs An IEP Or 504 Plan
If you are trying to make the decision whether your child needs an IEP or 504 plan at all or deciding between the two, here are some questions to ask yourself.
Does the child have a diagnosed disability? If yes, check above under the categories of disabilities that qualify for an IEP and see if their disability is one of them. If it is and you are considering an IEP, I highly recommend having the school do the testing. If no current diagnosis, go to the next question.
Is the child falling behind academically? If yes, consider what they need and are not getting and whether it falls under the 504 or IEP. Being behind academically itself is not a reason to be on an IEP. In fact, children that are ahead of their peers academically can be on an IEP!
Does the child need speech or occupational therapy? If the student is getting therapy outside of school, there is a good chance they will qualify for an IEP with therapy at school. Speech therapy can be social conventions, word usage, and more. Occupational therapy can be how to hold a pencil, sensory support, as well as others.
Does the child need gifted services? If the student requires services related to being gifted, this is covered on an IEP. Many gifted children also experience other areas of qualification for the IEP so if they are gifted and struggling it may be reason enough to request IEP testing.
Has the student been on a 504 plan and needs further support? As referenced above, there are many differences between a 504 and an IEP. Many additional services are available on an IEP that is not on a 504. If you think the student would benefit from one of those, request IEP testing.
The teacher has tried multiple alternatives and feels they need additional support. If this applies to your child, it is exactly the reason to go ahead with IEP testing.
Would extra time on assignments and a quiet testing space be sufficient? In this case, a 504 may be a better option as these as common accommodations on a 504.
Does the child need support outside the classroom and the current support in the class? If all supports can be provided in the classroom, a 504 may be more appropriate. This means no therapy, no special instruction, no technology required, no aid is needed, and the student only requires allowances made by the teacher. If this is true, a 504 is where you should start, if any of these are needed, get IEP testing done.
Does the child’s behavior keep them from access to the curriculum? Behavior is communication and if the student’s behavior is keeping them from academics, they need more support than is currently available and need IEP testing. This may look like them spending all their time in a “calm down corner” or getting sent to the principal’s office frequently.
Many students on IEPs are behind academically and they get specially designed instruction in order to get access to the curriculum. But even students who are on schedule or ahead can qualify for an IEP. The Individual Education Plan (IEP) is just that – individualized.
I was told that my son would not qualify for an IEP and that insisting on testing would waste everyone’s time and keep other students from getting the services they needed. However, the school was calling me multiple times a week to pick him up due to behavior concerns and he was spending very little time in the classroom.
I was told this because my son was ahead academically. “There is no way he will qualify for services,” were the exact words that came from the school principal. I insisted they test him anyways.
When the testing came back he qualified for an IEP under an academic autism diagnosis, communication disorder, and “emotional disturbance.” I especially despise the wording of the third one. They also found a fine motor disability impacting writing.
The “emotional disturbance” was due to frustration and overwhelm that he couldn’t write like the other kids. This is what “behavior is communication” looks like and may not always be obvious.
In the end, if you are considering whether your child needs an IEP I strongly recommend going through with the testing. If you don’t agree with what the testing finds, there are ways to dispute it and get proper testing done.
You are considering the IEP because there is an unmet need. IEP testing is the way to find what those needs are and whether an IEP will be appropriate for those needs.
Looking for information to decide between an IEP and a 504 Plan specifically for a student identified as ADHD? I wrote an article with more specific information to consider, available at this link.