Individual Education Program (IEP) & 504 Plans – What’s the Difference?


One common misunderstanding I’ve heard from both parents and teachers is whether it’s “better” to put a student in special education (on an IEP) or on a 504 plan. Let me start by giving the short answer:  one is not better than the other. The needs of the student should dictate which is needed (assuming one of the plans is needed at all). Let’s start with a little background about IEP and 504 plans. Each plan comes from different laws and has different purposes.

Part 1 – Exploring IEPs

Part 2 – Exploring 504 Plans

What is an IEP?

IEP stands for “Individualized Education Program.” All students in special education have an IEP. IEPs are simply the document that dictates what services, accommodations and modifications a student needs while in school. IEPs are specially designed and tailored to the individual student and IEPs apply only to publicly funded Pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools, although some private school and homeschooled students can also access special education.

Students must have a documented disability as defined by state and federal law to qualify for an IEP. There are only a handful of disabilities defined in special education law, including: Specific Learning Disability, Autism, and Language Impairment, among others. There are also a few disability categories that encompass multiple impairments, such as Orthopedic Impairment and Other Health Impairment. For a detailed list of special education defined disabilities, see Each state may have slight variations in how these disabilities are defined and identified.

IEPs are authorized by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA or more commonly known as “IDEA”). IDEA was most recently “reauthorized” or updated by congress in 2004, but the original federal law dates back to 1975.

How does an IEP work?

The most essential feature of an IEP is that students receive specialized instruction. Students on an IEP are monitored by a special education case manager, usually a special education teacher or speech-language pathologist. Specialized instruction may include pulling the student out of the regular classroom for intensive services in academics, behavior, speech, or language. Students on an IEP may also receive support services from an occupational therapist or physical therapist. In many cases, the student attends regular classes and the special education teacher comes in and co-teaches with the regular teacher.

What an IEP is not

Special education is not an intervention program. One common misconception among educators and parents is that if a student is unable to progress in a normal classroom, then that student must need special education. This is not the purpose of special education. Special education law originated because schools were barring kids with disabilities from school or not providing them an appropriate education—it was never intended to provide extra help for students who are struggling in the classroom.

Special education is for students with documented disabilities; it should not be considered a substitute for an effective and systematic intervention program.

Intervention programs are not part of special education, but should be available for any student who needs additional assistance. Schools determine what interventions might be appropriate and provide these interventions on an as-needed basis, as resources allow. A student who has not progressed in school, despite extensive and documented intervention, should be evaluated to determine if a disability exists.

Special education is not a prescription. Many parents come in to the school with a note or “prescription” for services written by a physician ordering the school to put the student on an IEP.

The unfortunate reality is that a prescription from a physician does not qualify a student for special education services.

Schools are not required to follow any physician’s order; in fact, in the case of an IEP, schools are legally prevented from placing a child on a IEP solely on the basis of a physician’s order. It simply doesn’t work that way.

These situations have potential to cause some contention between the parents and the school. Parents often think they have done what they need to do by having a physician verify that a student disability exists. When the school does not respond as the parents expect, it can feel like the school is violating the doctor’s orders. The problem is that many physicians do not understand that qualifying a student for special education requires the school to go through a specific process and the student has to meet the legal criteria. Physicians and parents are often unaware of this requirement. It is the school’s job to help the parents understand the process.

In summary, students who qualify for special education (and an IEP) must meet the legally defined criteria for a disability and require specialized instruction that cannot be given through a typical classroom setting, including intervention programs.

Part 2 – Exploring 504 Plans