IEP’s and 504’s- What are they, and does your child need one?

Written By: Shannon Huff, Ed.S.

The world of education can be confusing for many parents, especially when your child is struggling in school. You may have heard about ‘IEP’s’ and ‘504’s.’ What are they, what’s the difference between them, and most importantly, does your child need one?

First off, what are they? An IEP is an Individual Education Plan, which is a comprehensive legal document that outlines the services and accommodations needed for a student with a disability. A 504 plan is also an individual plan that outlines accommodations needed for those with disabilities, but does not include specialized educational services. The name ‘504 plan’ arises from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities who are in need of accommodations.

IEP’s and 504 plans are both legal documents, and both outline accommodations for the student that need to be made under federal law. Both documents require an evaluation through the school to determine eligibility. An evaluation may or may not include testing, or additional assessment. Testing done by an outside agency can be considered as part of the evaluation, but sometimes the school district will need to gather more information before determining if the student is eligible.

To determine if a student is eligible for an IEP, the school district must first determine if the student meets eligibility in any area of impairment. The areas of impairment include Speech and Language, Emotional/Behavioral Disability, Significant Developmental Delay, Intellectual Disability, Autism, Hearing Impairment, Orthopedic Impairment, Traumatic Brain Injury, Visual Impairment, Other Health Impairment, and Specific Learning Disability (in Basic Reading Skills, Reading Comprehension, Reading Fluency, Math Calculation, Math Problem Solving, Written Expression, Listening Comprehension, or Oral Expression). Each area of impairment has a set of eligibility criteria determined by state and federal guidelines. A student only needs to meet eligibility in one area of impairment, but may meet eligibility for multiple areas of impairment. If the student meets eligibility criteria, the determination then needs to be made whether the student requires specialized instruction. This is the ultimate difference between IEP’s and 504’s. Specialized instruction can include academic instruction, social skills, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and/or specially designed physical education.

If the student is found to meet criteria for an area of impairment and is determined to need specialized instruction, an IEP is developed. The IEP is developed by a team, which includes parents/guardians, a regular education teacher, a special education teacher, and a representative for the school district (usually a school psychologist). The team may also include other service providers if needed, such as a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, or physical therapist. The IEP will outline the student’s strengths and needs, and the team will determine goals for each area of need. The team will then decide what accommodations and services will be needed for the student to meet each goal. Sometimes the services can be provided right in the regular education classroom, but sometimes the student will be removed to a special education setting for a portion of their school day. The IEP is effective for one year, and the IEP meets annually to discuss the student’s progress and to develop new goals. Changes can only be made to the IEP if the entire team agrees. Every three years students are required to be re-evaluated to determine if they continue to meet eligibility criteria and need special education (although a re-evaluation can be done prior to three years if needed).

504 plans are also effective for one year, and are reviewed at least annually. 504 plans do not include goals; they only outline the accommodations needed in the regular education classroom. They may also include accommodations needed for testing.

If your child is having difficulty in school, please reach out to your child’s teacher and/or the school psychologist.  Most teachers are willing to try many different interventions to help struggling students, and welcome input from parents. Good communication between home and school is so important, and will help your child be successful.

For more information about special education, please contact the school psychologist at your child’s school, or go the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s website:


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