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education plans and 504 plans

What Clinicians Should Know About Individualized Education Plans and 504 Plans

When children need help at school for ADHD, anxiety, autism, learning disorders, or other issues, it is often the clinician’s job to help the parents navigate options for academic accommodations. Is an IEP the right fit versus a 504, and what is the difference? 

As an Amen Clinics psychiatrist treating children with a variety of brain health disorders, I have learned over the years how vitally important this subject is for my patients. The purpose of this article is to provide a distillation of the basics of 504 and IEP plans. It will discuss how they differ in the real world, how they are obtained, and how to best explain the process to patients and parents.

504 Basics

Short for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the 504 is a federal civil rights law passed in 1973 that bans discrimination in public schools and protects students with disabilities that affect their ability to learn.

What does a 504 provide?

A 504 provides accommodations to students with disabilities to ensure equal access to all learning and school activities.

Who is eligible for a 504?

There are two requirements for a 504 plan. A student must have a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more essential life activities. In addition, the disability must impact the student’s ability to learn in a general education classroom.

What types of accommodations are provided by a 504?

A 504 provides accommodations, such as extended time on tests, audiobooks, and digital recorders to list a few.

Who is involved in a 504?

The child’s caregivers, teachers, and school principals typically make up the 504 team.

Does a 504 require written documentation?

No, a 504 does not need to be recorded in a formal document.

What does a 504 cost?

504 services are provided at no cost to the family.

What is an IEP?

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is a federal mandate.

What does an IEP Provide?

An IEP provides special education and services to fit a child’s unique needs.

Who is eligible for an IEP?

A student may apply for an IEP if they have any of the following 13 disabilities: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Specific Learning Disability (such as dyslexia), Other Health Impairment (such as ADHD), Emotional Disturbance, Speech or Language Impairment, Visual Impairment, Deafness, Hearing Impairment, Deaf-Blindness, Orthopedic Impairment, Intellectual Disability, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Multiple Disabilities.

What types of accommodations are provided by an IEP?

An IEP provides accommodations that can involve simple assistance to actual changes in the curriculum or environment to suit a patient’s unique needs.

Who is involved in an IEP?

The IEP team must consist of at least the child’s caregiver, one general education teacher, one special education teacher, a professional capable of interpreting IEP results (usually a psychologist), and a district representative with special education authority.

Does an IEP require written documentation?

Yes, the IEP is a formal document that is legally binding.

What does an IEP cost?

IEP services are provided at no cost to the family but in terms of cost can run up to $20,000 annually per student.

3 Real-World Differences Between 504s and IEPs

Although these two plans may sound similar, there are some very important differences in the way they are administered in actual practice. Based on my experience working with children who need special education accommodations, there are some key differences that may be anticipated.

1. 504s are often largely ignored by schools. 

As a result, general education teachers are often unaware of a student’s issues or the accommodations they need.

2. 504 accommodations can get lost in transition. 

When a student transitions from one level of school to the next (elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school), there is often a lack of communication between the two schools. This means the teachers and staff at the new placement are often unaware of the student’s disability and accommodations.

3. Schools are usually more willing to provide a 504 than an IEP. 

504s are far less costly than IEPs, which cost schools tens of thousands of dollars annually per student. In addition, the fact that the IEP is legally binding makes schools less inclined to provide it.

4 Steps to Getting an IEP

An IEP offers more assurances that a child will receive the necessary accommodations, but it takes considerably more effort to obtain one. There are 4 basic components of the process.

1. Request an Educational Assessment

The first step to getting an IEP is requesting an educational assessment. Parents must submit a letter by certified mail stating the child’s disability and giving permission to assess the child. The school must complete the assessment within 60 days of the letter’s receipt.

2. Discuss the Results of the Assessment

The school should contact parents to set up an initial domain meeting to discuss the assessment results. As a clinician, you may be asked to attend this meeting along with family members, attorneys, and educational advocates. Family members often ask clinicians to help them interpret the results of the assessment as they do not know how to make sense of the document. It is also important to review the actual assessment tools, as I have had the unfortunate experience of having school staff deliberately skew rating scale results to prevent adequate diagnosis.

3. Be Prepared for Resistance

Based on personal experience, parents can expect to meet with some level of resistance when requesting an IEP. Some of the common avoidance tactics employed by schools include saying the child is not failing and as such does not need an IEP. Another is that the child will be “labeled” in a detrimental way.  Sometimes they will simply state that that they do not need to give the child an IEP because they feel that the child does not need one. It is important for clinicians to be prepared for these eventualities.

4. Take Action if the IEP is Denied

In the event that a school denies the child an IEP, there are still avenues of recourse. For example, they may request an Independent Educational Evaluation at the school’s expense. Some parents take legal action and file civil suits or can file for a Due Process Hearing where they can ask a court to make a determination if the school has done all due diligence.

The IEP in Action

When the process is successful and a child is granted an IEP, parents may look to their child’s psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist for guidance on what to expect from the plan. There are several mandatory components to an IEP, including descriptions of:

  • The child’s current strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and skills in the academic, social, and physical arenas
  • The services the child will be receiving
  • Accommodations to be provided
  • How the child will participate in standardized testing
  • How the child will be included in Gen Ed classes and activities

Understand that IEPs must be reviewed at least once a year and re-evaluated once every 3 years. Unfortunately, schools often try to phase out services as quickly as possible, which is why it is important to know about “stay put” rights. If a school wishes to implement changes to the IEP but the parents disagree with those changes, they have the right to evoke stay put rights. This must occur within 15 days of the date of the written notice of the proposed change. Parents can do this by filing for due process or submitting a request for mediation.

By advising parents on how to secure the appropriate academic accommodations, whether a 504 or an IEP, these patients will have a greater chance of succeeding not only in school but also in life.


About the Author: Eun Paik, MD, Amen Clinics Chicago

Dr. Eun Paik is a Board-Certified Child and Adult Psychiatrist whose treatment philosophy combines conservative pharmacologic management, appropriate forms of psychotherapy, and a thorough knowledge of the rapidly evolving field of Cognitive Neuropsychological. Her particular areas of interest include affective disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

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