504 VS. IEP: Which One Is Right For My Child?

by Molly Matava on 11/18/2012

When parents of special needs students are searching for the best support services available to their child, the most common question they ask me is about the difference between a 504 Plan and an IEP. While both offer protections to people with disabilities, they are quite different in their eligibility, scope, and services and supports. Understanding these differences is the key to figuring out which plan is right for your child.

Using a student with ADHD as an example, here’s how I would approach the decision:


Eligibility under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is contingent upon a child having a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits at least one major life activity. In order to be eligible for a 504 Plan, you need to prove that the student has a disability and that it adversely affects them in school. In the case of ADHD, that can be the ability to concentrate and remain focused.

Alternatively, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) serves students with disabilities through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). A student not only needs to meet eligibility criteria, but also requires special education services in order to access the curriculum. So in addition to a doctor’s diagnosis, it needs to be proven that the disability manifests in a way that directly impacts the student’s education. Continuing my example of a student with ADHD, in order to qualify for an IEP (under the category Other Health Impaired (OHI)) the student would require special education services, not just accommodations. Two examples of such services are time in a resource room or a classroom aide to help keep him on task.


Both a 504 and an IEP can serve our student with ADHD, but which one his parents pursue should depend on how much his disability impacts him academically. While some parents fear that a child who qualifies for special education under an IEP will be removed from the general classroom environment, and placed in a special education class, this is not the case. Special education is a service not a location, and because every child has the right to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), they should be included with their peers to the maximum extent possible.

Services & Supports

A 504 Plan is meant to level the playing field and offer an education that is comparable to their non-disabled peers. It does so through accommodations made for the child in the classroom environment, aimed at reducing or eliminating challenges that may impede learning. An IEP may contain the same accommodations, in addition to special education services such as occupational or speech therapies, etc.

Some examples of accommodations a student with ADHD might receive with either 504 or IEP are:

  • Additional time for tests
  • Separate location for tests
  • Notes provided by teacher or peer
  • Preferential seating
  • Shortened or modified assignments
  • Breaks

The tables below are meant to further aid in your comparison of 504 plans versus IEPs. If you have anything to add, please specify your Pros and Cons by leaving a comment at the end of this blog.




Easier to get than an IEP—shorter process School does not have to invite parent to development meeting
Least restrictive environment for your child Can be changed without parent permission
Follows a student after they leave high school Fewer legal protections to ensure plan is followed
Only covers accommodations—fewer services than an IEP




Includes a thorough evaluation that is free to the parent Some stigma attached to special education
Wide range of services and accommodations Long and potentially contentious process to become eligible
Parents are equal members of the IEP team Ends when the student finishes high school
Includes Procedural Safeguards which offer many parent rights



{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracy L. Zaslow, MD November 19, 2012 at 12:45 PM

Super-informative! This info is really well-organized and I will totally use this as a great reference for appropriate patients.


Liz Matheis November 19, 2012 at 9:35 PM

Excellent article – very easy to follow and understand. Another thing to keep in mind is that a student is eligible for a 504 Accommodation plan regardless of any mitigating measures, such as medication (in the case of students with AD/HD). That is, a student who is using medication and finding it helpful cannot be denied a 504 plan. The disability also has to impact major life activities, which can range from a physiological ability as well as an emotional or academic ability.

Once again, great article!


Molly Matava November 20, 2012 at 11:22 PM

Yes, I agree completely about mitigating circumstances being important. In addition to medication, another one I often see is time spent on homework and private tutors. Yes we want our kids to try hard, but spending an inordinate amount of time can be a mitigating circumstance.


Angela Plaugher November 20, 2012 at 1:41 PM

Great article — I found it to be easy to follow and understand. I think that this article will be a great asset to parents, educators and clinicians who may have some questions in reference to special accommodations when a special needs child is concerned. It seems like pros and cons for each (504 vs. IEP) may be better or worse depending on the age, disability, conditions, etc… of the child. I have several parents and colleagues that I will pass this on to who may have questions about children with special needs.


Jennifer Weberman (@Dr_Weberman) November 20, 2012 at 6:52 PM

I’ve never understood the distinction between a 504 Plan and an IEP as well as I do now after reading this article. I particularly appreciated learning what the difference is after a student graduates high school. Thank you Molly :)


Molly Matava November 20, 2012 at 11:29 PM

Yes, the graduation issue is a big one. Not only do colleges look at 504 accommodations but they may even look to see if they have been in place for some time. So glad you liked the article Jennifer :)


Joel Eisenberg November 25, 2012 at 4:53 PM

This is an excellent article. It is extremely important to know of all these programs. Just remember in addition to knowing these programs the parent must be an advocate in and out of school for their child. If the school district doesn’t help with what you need for the best interest of your child you have to find one that will.


Molly Matava November 26, 2012 at 10:31 AM

That is the whole point of my work–to empower the parents to advocate for their child on a daily basis. I attend IEP meetings and help with strategies in between but it’s the parents who must follow up on all the goals, accommodations, and daily ups and downs in order to make any IEP or 504 plan effective. They are only as good as the follow through.

Are you suggesting that if the school district doesn’t help your child you should move or find a private school?


Mary February 15, 2016 at 12:45 PM

Thank you so much for clarifying – I have been able to assist my son through elementary school without medication or modified plan until he reached High School everything changed.
I have been working with his school for a year now and reading every article I can. this is the best so far and I will be taking it to my second meeting next week

thank you again


Molly Matava February 16, 2016 at 6:15 PM

This is common. Kids often find ways around their disabilities by working harder, longer, and from outside supports. High school requires more executive functioning skills to manage the many long term assignments and slow processing speed can make integrating different materials more difficult. The question I often ask parents is whether their student needs special education help or just accommodations. Special education can take the form of a study skills class, speech/social skills class, or counseling session. It does not necessarily mean a big change from their current schedule. Keep in mind that the IEP ends when the student graduates and the accommodations continue. One goal I add to all IEPs or 504s is for the student to understand their accommodations and be able to ask for them.


Valerie Rose February 19, 2016 at 4:46 AM

Help me clarify, So, does a 504 plan help with college or hinder with college entrance/acceptance/scholarships etc?


Molly Matava August 19, 2016 at 1:05 PM

Colleges are not allowed to discriminate based on disability. That said, they all have entrance requirements. You would need to talk with the guidance counselors about available scholarships. Having a 504 does not open more doors to a school, it does allow a student to receive their accommodations once they get there.


Mimi of John August 19, 2016 at 11:41 AM

My child has behavioral issues at school such as he is socially immature and he tries to make every laugh at silly jokes that tend to keep him in trouble. He is very sharp academically. His medical Dr. has suggested and IEP for his behaviors, but the school has said he don’t meet the criteria. I was wondering if in this case if a 504 would be beneficial for his behaviors?

Thank you.


Molly Matava August 19, 2016 at 1:03 PM

It sounds like your son needs a positive behavior support plan. That can be done through general education with the help of the school psychologist. It’s always good to get the school on the same page as you are when there is a diagnosis. I would call a meeting and discuss his diagnosis and bring as much information from your outside expert as possible. That would be the person who diagnosed your son. See if they can write a list of recommendations. It’s not clear to me whether your son has a major life activity affected by his disability, but I suspect he does.


Mimi of John August 19, 2016 at 11:41 AM

I failed to mention he is ADHD, ODD.


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