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

Kids need a champion

I shared this Ted Talk with an incredible group of educators this week. Rita Pierson says this so much better than I can. Every good cause needs a champion. Every kid deserves a champion.

When Parents are Angry at the School: Tips for Teachers



All teachers, no matter how experienced, will face a time when parents are frustrated with them. In most cases, it may not be because the teacher has done anything wrong. Frustration is often the result of unmet expectations or misunderstanding. No matter the reason, there are a few things teachers can do to help ease the tension.

Seek first to understand. In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey coined Habit 5 as “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Stephen Covey himself stated that it was one of the most challenging habits to master. When meeting with a parent, don’t try to defend yourself or your methods, at least not at first. Your first job is to listen, not with intent to respond, but with the intent to understand the parents’ perspective.

So what does active listening look like? It means two things:  First, you should be able to restate (or reflect), in your own words what the parents are saying. Second, you should be able to state the emotion the parents are demonstrating. For example:

“You sound frustrated and confused because I haven’t communicated about…”

If you practice reflecting both their statements and emotions, most people will trust that you have heard them and they will likely even affirm that you are hearing them. Listen for it. You may surprise yourself in that you will also begin taking on a new perspective.

Don’t forget about the second half of Habit 5: seek first to understand, then to be understood. After the parents believe that you understand them, you can then make your case and offer ideas. At this point, you can politely help the parents understand your perspective. Be sure you come prepared with examples and data supporting your case. Parents might slip back into previously voiced frustration. If they do, be prepared to return to listening mode. Sometimes, you may not get a chance to be understood, so don’t try to push being understood.

Be open to ideas. It’s easy to get stuck in your own way of doing things or believe that your perspective is the right one. Be aware of this tendency in yourself and notice if you slip into usual patterns. The parents know their child better than the school and they may provide some innovative ways to work with their student. If you and the parents are both stuck for ideas or can’t agree, it may be time to seek help from others.

Ask for help. When you’re stuck or need assistance, another teacher, the principal, counselor, or school psychologist can be excellent partners in thinking through the situation. The principal can be especially helpful if you reach an impasse with the parents and can’t come to an agreement. The principal can bring forth resources that you may not have thought of and can provide the parents reassurance of follow through. School psychologists and counselors can be helpful in thinking through and supporting behavioral or emotional challenges.

Communicate the positives. This one is so important. Always communicate positive attributes about the student to the parents and show them that you care about their student’s success. If your communication is primarily about negative behavior or lagging academics, don’t be surprised if the parents react negatively or defensively.

Tell them, specifically, what you love about their student. Demonstrate how excited you are when the student makes good choices and experience success. Parents will begin to assume that you have good intentions if they know you care.

Occasionally, you will encounter a student who is a significant challenge to your abilities as a teacher. See this as a learning opportunity. The difference between a good teacher and a great teacher is being willing to take on the challenge of learning how to work with even the most challenging students. When parents see this willingness to learn and to help their student, they will see how much you care.

Have you been in one of these situations? What has worked for you?