Section 504 Plans vs. Individualized Education Programs (IEPs): What’s the Difference?

As a neuropsychologist, I work with schools to support struggling students. I enjoy this aspect of my job, as it brings together two of my biggest academic passions: education and neuropsychology. You may not know this, but I was both a psychology and education major in college and had thought I would become a teacher after graduation. Growing up with a mom who worked as a special education teacher for over three decades, teaching just felt like it was in my blood. I worked as a substitute teacher in New Jersey when home on college breaks, and I absolutely loved working in schools.

Though my career evolved from teaching to clinical neuropsychology over the years, my interest in supporting students remains to this day. So, in this blog post I want to discuss the differences between Section 504 Plans and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). I often recommend one of these plans based on the results of my evaluation, but it is important for parents to understand the differences between these two types of service plans and why one plan may be recommended (or supported) versus another.

Section 504 Plans

Let’s start with a Section 504 plan. Stemming from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, this federal civil rights law was put into place to stop discrimination against people with disabilities. A Section 504 Plan outlines how schools will provide support to a student who has a disability without removing the student from their classroom setting. Students who have a Section 504 plan remain with their peers, and the services are based on changes to the environment that allow students to learn or more easily access classroom material.

Section 504 plans apply to any child with a disability, though the disability has to interfere with the child’s success in learning in a general education classroom setting. It is most often a written document outlining specific accommodations, supports or services for the child. Technically, it does not have to be written, but I’ve never come across a verbal Section 504 plan! There is no specific expectations around who is involved in the creation of a Section 504 plan, but often parents, a teacher, and the principal (or other school representative) are involved.

Individualized Education Programs

Shifting gears to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), this type of plan stems from a federal special education law for children with disabilities called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA). An IEP is granted if a child has one (or more) of the 13 disabilities outlined in IDEA. You can learn more about the different classifications here. If you are looking for the full New Jersey State Regulations, check this page out for more information. The disability must negatively impact a child’s ability to learn, and the child must require specialized instruction to make progress. Often, this means the child would benefit from services outside of the general classroom setting, which may include pull-out instruction, supportive therapies (speech/language, occupational or physical therapy) or other supplemental services.

The IEP is created by a very specific team of individuals, including the child’s parents, a general education and special education teacher, a school psychologist, and someone who represents the district. IEP update meetings must occur yearly, and the child is reevaluated every 3 years to be sure he or she remains eligible for services.  IEP plans are formal, written documents, that include information about the child’s level of academic functioning, specific goals and progress monitoring, support services and their frequency/duration, as well as accommodations and modifications. It is important to note that an accommodation is made to a child’s environment, allowing the child to more easily access the content he or she is learning. Modifications, on the other hand, are changes to the class content or curriculum itself.

With both Section 504 and IEPs, parents are notified when changes are made. While Section 504 changes do not have to be in writing, changes to an IEP must be made known to a parent in writing before they are initiated.

With regard to the evaluation process that occurs every 3 years, a parent or guardian has the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE), though the district does not have to agree to it. Similarly, a family can choose to have their child independently evaluated outside of the district, but again, the district does not have to accept the evaluation. Though I am not aware of any district “rejecting” my evaluation, I strive to be a beneficial resource to both school personnel and families. I cover all the domains that a school evaluation includes (e.g., overall intellectual functioning, academics, social and emotional functioning), but extend the evaluation to include measures of executive functions, memory, language and visuospatial functioning, adaptive functions or daily independence, etc. You can read more about the IEE process by clicking here.

Overall, Section 504 Plans and IEPs provide different types of services and supports to children who need them. It is best when parents and school personnel can agree to these plans without conflict, but there are formal processes that can be initiated if disputes arise. Hopefully, if you are reading this blog, those processes do not pertain to you!

As this new school year begins, I wish all families, educators, and students a happy and successful year ahead!