Is an IEP or 504 Plan Best for Your Child? How to Decide
Which is better for a child with ADHD: an IEP or a 504 Plan? Here, understand the differences in accommodations and special services, learn how to secure the most effective school help for your child, and understand how the process works from the first assessment to the final paperwork.
How to Get an IEP: After the School Assessment
After the school completes its evaluation and assessment of your child, it will send you a letter scheduling a meeting to discuss whether your child qualifies for an IEP or a 504 Plan. A 504 Plan is usually offered as sort of a consolation prize for students who are deemed not sufficiently disabled to qualify for an IEP.
In some cases, the school will determine that a child is ineligible for services and will notify you by letter. Schools usually do not hold a meeting to notify you about ineligibility for services. Of course, you can dispute the finding by requesting an IEE at the school’s expense (see Step 6).
Some school teams will assess the child and make their recommendations of 504 Plan services without your input. Other schools seek the input of parents to discuss services. With IEPs, parents are a designated part of the team and must participate in all phases of applying for and determining services like ADHD accommodations.
[Free Chart Comparing IEPs to 504 Plans]
At the assessment meeting, parents are entitled to have all assessment information explained to them before the next meeting at which accommodations and services are to be determined. Parents should ask the person who administered the assessment to give them a copy of the report and meet with them to explain the report several days before the assessment meeting. This enables the parents to think through the information before making decisions for their child. If all IEP decisions are based on the information from the assessment, parents should be informed about the assessment results in a way they can understand.
Depending on the school district, some IEP and 504 Plan teams propose accommodations and services at the assessment meeting. It is a better idea for parents to request a second meeting to discuss specific accommodations and services. This gives them time to review the assessment with their child’s doctor, therapist, or learning specialist.
The school assessment team recommended that a 504 Plan would work best for my son. I thought an IEP would better suit his challenges. What are the differences between an IEP and a 504 Plan?
Let’s start at the beginning. There are two laws governing special services and accommodations for children with disabilities: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These laws are different.
All schools receiving federal funding are required to provide services under Section 504, but IDEA applies to all students, even those in private schools that do not receive federal funding. Children with ADHD often receive services under Section 504 because the requirements for IDEA are more stringent.
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Under IDEA, there are 13 specific categories of disabilities:
4. Emotional Disturbance
5. Hearing Impairment
6. Intellectual Disability
7. Multiple Disabilities
8. Orthopedic Impairment
9. Other Health Impaired (ADHD is covered in this category)
10. Specific Learning Disability
11. Speech or Language Impairment
12. Traumatic Brain Injury
13. Visual Impairment
ADHD falls into the classification of Other Health Impaired (OHI). Because IDEA is very specific, children who have been diagnosed with ADHD only are often denied services under this law. If your child has another challenge, such as a learning disability, this law might apply. If your child’s ADHD is so severe that it causes major impairment, he might qualify under IDEA. If so, a document called an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is designed to outline services, accommodations, special education, and goals for your child.
The IEP document is usually about 10 to 12 pages long. It must contain goals and transitional services that might be needed after high school.
Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the needs of children with physical and mental impairments are required to be met as adequately as those of children without disabilities.
[Free Guide: Easy Accommodations to Help Students with ADHD or LD]
It covers children with ADHD who do not meet the eligibility requirements for an IEP, but who need extra help at school. It is common for children diagnosed with ADHD to receive a 504 Plan.
To be eligible for services under Section 504, you must have a disability. A disability is considered a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Learning is considered a major life activity. That means, if ADHD limits your child’s ability to learn in an educational setting, he may qualify for accommodations or services under Section 504 — things like extended time on tests, cues from the teacher to keep the student focused, and so on.
The Section 504 document is less formal than an IEP. Most are two pages long, and some are only one. It lists all services, accommodations, and modifications your child will receive. Unlike the IEP, the 504 document does not include goals or transitional services after high school.
The easiest way to think about the differences between an IEP and a 504 Plan is that, if a student needs accommodations only in a regular classroom, he will generally get a 504 Plan. If the student needs special education services outside of a regular classroom, he will qualify for an IEP.
Can my child get the same services under a 504 Plan as an IEP?
Yes, a child can receive any services, accommodations, or modifications deemed necessary under Section 504, except for special education.
Both an IEP and a 504 Plan are binding legal documents. That means that once your child has received an IEP or Section 504, the school does not have the right to deny services or accommodations listed in the document. For older children, the IEP must include a transition plan for life after high school.
Teachers, even if they don’t agree with an accommodation, must follow the document. Suppose your child’s 504 Plan provides for her to receive extra time to take tests, but the teacher doesn’t think your child needs this accommodation. If the teacher refuses to provide the extra time, you have the right to file a complaint or ask for a due process hearing (see Step 12).
Consider Adam and Christine, who both live in the same school district. Adam has ADHD and severe dyslexia. His reading is two grade levels below the average. He attends regular education classes at some times during the day, but also attends special education classes to help with his dyslexia and give him extra help in reading. Adam has an IEP.
Christine has ADHD and dyslexia. She struggles with reading and spelling but is at grade level. She is in a regular education class and doesn’t require any special education. She does need help, such as extra time on tests or taking tests orally, dividing assignments into small sections, and getting a copy of notes from the teacher. Christine has a 504 Plan.
Both Adam and Christine have ADHD and dyslexia. Adam, however, is two grade levels below in reading, while Christine is reading at grade level. According to the school district, dyslexia does not qualify a student for an IEP unless the child is at least 1.5 grade levels behind. That is why Adam qualified for IDEA, but Christine did not.
How to Get an IEP for Your Child with ADHD
- Step One: Document Signs of Trouble at School
- Step Two: Schedule a Meeting with Your Child’s Teacher
- Step Three: Pursue a Diagnosis of ADHD and/or LD
- Step Four: Request a Special Education Assessment
- Step Five: Research the Differences Between IEPs and 504 Plans
- Step Six: Learn Whether You Need to Contest the School’s Recommendation
- Step Seven: Prepare for Your IEP Meeting
- Step Eight: Research Classroom Accommodations
- Step Nine: Draft an IEP with Your Academic Team