Understanding IEPs & 504 Plans

While IEPs are the documents that rule special education, many students with disabilities don't qualify for IEPs and are instead served under 504s, plans that offer students protections but not services.

All About IEPs, Part 1

When students qualify for special education services, they receive an IEP, which comes with services as well as legal protections. For more on IEPs, including what is in them and who needs to be at IEP meetings, go to the bottom of this page!

IEP stands for Individual Education Program. It is the document that describes the supports, services, and program for a student who qualifies for special education. IEPs are written by a team that includes a special education teacher.

To get an IEP, students must qualify for special education through a formal assessment process that includes both testing for disabilities and academic performance testing. To qualify, students must both have a qualifying disability AND that disability must impact their performance in the general education curriculum. A qualifying disability means one that is one of the 12 handicapping conditions in IDEA (more more on those visit the IDEA page!). If a student has a disability and it does NOT impact their performance in general education, they would instead get a 504.


An IEP comes with a lot! Students get services, including academic support services like a resource teacher and, if needed, related services like speech and language services (for more on related services see the page on that!). Students also qualify for supplementary aids and supports, which can range from extra time on a test to a voice to text program paid by the school.  The biggest thing is that IEPs come with supports that cost money like extra staff support or technology programs– as well as with no cost accommodations like extra time!

IEPs are part of IDEA, the federal law that outlines all of special education and dictates how students qualify and the type of supports they can receive. 

All about 504s

Many students with disabilities do not qualify for special education and instead get a 504 plan, which offers them legal protections but no services.

A 504 is a plan written by a school counselor that describes school based accommodations for a student with a disability who does NOT receive special education services. 

Any student with a disability can get a 504! Because 504s offer less than IEPs, 504s are only used in K-12 schools for students who do NOT have an IEP. 

To qualify, according to the Office of Civil Rights, ” To be protected under Section 504, a student must be determined to: (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or (2) have a record of such an impairment; or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment.” 

While processes vary from school to school, most typically a parent will request a 504. Then school officials review the student’s diagnosis and school records and decide whether a 504 is a good fit. Note that ALL children with disabilities are eligible for a 504 so this process is more about ruling out special education and figuring out what supports a student should get! Then the counselor and school creates the plan and meets with the parent, an administrator, and a general education teacher to review the plan. 

Here are some examples of students who might get a 504 but not an IEP:

  • A student who is academically strong but has a physical disability that means they need extra time to write or access to a typing device
  • A student with diabetes who needs their blood sugar monitored at school
  • A student with ADHD who is doing very well academically but needs to be able to run laps periodically throughout the day or have their medication monitored at school

The common characteristic is that the student is academically successful. If they need academic supports, they need an IEP!

504s offer students protection against discrimination. In many schools that is taken to mean that, with a 504, students can get:

  • Testing accommodations like extra time
  • Classroom accommodations like the ability to take breaks as needed or stand in the back
  • Behavior supports like check ins with a counselor or a behavior support plan
  • Medical supports like check ins with a nurse
  • Students can also get services like occupational therapy or vision support with a 504! This is more rare though as many students who need those extra supports are better served under an IEP as those come with more!

504 plans come from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law was created to prevent discrimination against veterans with disabilities. The law prohibits organizations that receive federal money from discriminating against people on the basis of their disabilities. 

The exact text from the act is: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705 (20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

All About IEPs, Part 2

 In plain language, an IEP needs to have:

  • Present levels of performance that provide detailed information on a student’s baseline in academic, socioemotional functioning, and motor skills (really? yes! put something in the box– and if they have no physical challenges amazing– write the positives!)
  • Measurable annual goals that match areas of need identified in the present levels
  • Checkboxes that state you will inform parents of progress at report card periods
  • Information on all services students will receive for the next year, including the number of hours and locations of services– and the start date of services
  • Information on any supports the students will receive (like extra time on tests or a text-to-speech reader) and where and how they will have access to it
  • Information on any state test accommodations the student will need
  • A justification for any service hours you listed that are not in general ed (check out the LRE and FAPE page for more on this!)

That’s it! Districts might divide up this information differently, but every single IEP in the United States HAS to have this exact stuff on it! The law is federal so formatting changes district to district but this content needs to be in there!

IDEA is incredibly specific about what needs to be in an IEP. Rather than writing the content myself, I am pasting below from IDEA. The IEP must contain:
(1) A statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, including—
  • (i) How the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum (i.e., the same curriculum as for nondisabled children); or
  • (ii) For preschool children, as appropriate, how the disability affects the child’s participation in appropriate activities;
  • (i) A statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals designed to—
    • (A) Meet the child’s needs that result from the child’s disability to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum; and
    • (B) Meet each of the child’s other educational needs that result from the child’s disability;
  • (ii) For children with disabilities who take alternate assessments aligned to alternate academic achievement standards, a description of benchmarks or short-term objectives;
(3) A description of—
  • (i) How the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals described in paragraph (2) of this section will be measured; and
  • (ii) When periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards) will be provided;
(4) A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided to enable the child—
  • (i) To advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals;
  • (ii) To be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum in accordance with paragraph (a)(1) of this section, and to participate in extracurricular and other nonacademic activities; and
  • (iii) To be educated and participate with other children with disabilities and nondisabled children in the activities described in this section;
(5) An explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class and in the activities described in paragraph (a)(4) of this section;
  • (i) A statement of any individual appropriate accommodations that are necessary to measure the academic achievement and functional performance of the child on State and districtwide assessments consistent with section 612(a)(16) of the Act; and
  • (ii) If the IEP Team determines that the child must take an alternate assessment instead of a particular regular State or districtwide assessment of student achievement, a statement of why—
    • (A) The child cannot participate in the regular assessment; and
    • (B) The particular alternate assessment selected is appropriate for the child; and
(7) The projected date for the beginning of the services and modifications described in paragraph (a)(4) of this section, and the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of those services and modifications.

Here again I am going to paste from the law because the law is incredibly specific about who must be in attendance. Any meeting held without the required folks is invalid. AKA administrators and general education teachers (at least of them) are not allowed to skip!

Here is what the law says:

(a)  The public agency must ensure that the IEP Team for each child with a disability includes—

(1) The parents of the child;
(2) Not less than one regular education teacher of the child (if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment);
(3) Not less than one special education teacher of the child, or where appropriate, not less than one special education provider of the child;
(4) A representative of the public agency who—
  • (i) Is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities;
  • (ii) Is knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
  • (iii) Is knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency.
(5) An individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results, who may be a member of the team described in paragraphs (a)(2) through (a)(6) of this section;
(6) At the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate; and
(7) Whenever appropriate, the child with a disability.

IEPs are written for one year. The district is legally required to hold a new meeting and get a new IEP in place before 365 days pass from the last IEP.

IEPs can be held more often than that and meetings can be combined. For example, if an annual is due in December and a triennial in February for a student, you hold both in December. There are no penalties for being early and many for being late!

Parents also have the right to request interim IEPs. These are meetings that are formal, legal meetings but held between annual meetings. Typically at these small changes are made to an IEP. Schools can also request them. For example, I used to do interims for my fifth graders at the end of the year to, in consultation with the middle school, update the services for their transition.

IEPs are also required to be held within 60 days of a parent signing an assessment plan.

Try harder. Sorry. Technically, there are provisions for this but really, where there is a will there is a way. I had a large class store. I have paid students to bring in their parents. I have paid the older sibling of my student to get their parents to the meeting. I have held meetings after school, during the day, and once in someone’s living room. You don’t get to just make a token effort. Be creative. 

The truth is that what happens is that the special education teacher or people presenting reports talk and the parent listens. The administrator will often come in late or leave early, as will the general education teacher, and many will multi-task during the meeting. The parent will get a chance to speak only at the end and will, at times, cry. And everyone feels stressed and also like their time was wasted. This isn’t what meetings should be, but it is what they, far too often are. 

Here is what a meeting should be (according to me)

  • Prior to the meeting, the teacher and parent should have talked to ensure that the teacher really understands the parent’s concerns, hopes, and thoughts before the meeting and that no bombshells will go off during the meeting.
  • The meeting should begin with an actual sharing of parent rights.
  • Then the teachers, providers, and parent share student strengths. This should not be cry-fest, beat up on a student meetings.
  • Then the providers and teachers share present levels, with input from the parent on what they see at home.
  • Then (lets be real, you have to right these in advance) teachers and providers present goals, going over each and asking for input from the parent. 
  • Then the team discusses how to get a student to meet those goals, including in school supports, along with hours of service and how the school and family can work together.
  • Then the parent and other team members are asked for other concerns that have not been addressed yet.
  • Then whatever boring stuff is left and, if the parent wants to sign, signatures.

That’s my happy IEP agenda, where the parent is brought in time and time again to share their thoughts and wisdom and the focus is on the child’s strengths, where you want them to go, and how to get them there– and everyone stays in the room the whole time.

Hopefully your meetings look more like this and less like the first!