IEPs & 504 Plans

Which Is Better: An IEP or a 504 Plan?

Your child needs school accommodations to help him better learn and retain information. But what’s the best way to go about getting them? The pros and cons of a 504 Accommodation Plan and an Individualized Education Plan.

Three blocks spelling "IEP" on paint covered table, which is important to know about if a child has ADHD
Three blocks spelling "IEP" on paint covered table, which is important to know about if a child has ADHD

Your child is showing signs of ADHD. He’s doing OK at school, but isn’t really living up to his potential. His teacher has spoken to you about the accommodations she is providing, but once she’s done with him this year, then what? Will his next teacher know him well enough to offer the accommodations that have worked or, better yet, to offer different ones as he needs them?

All of these are big questions without easy answers. Your child’s needs are different from those of every other child with ADHD. Each case is truly unique, but the path that parents should follow is well worn. It begins with an evaluation and a medical ADHD diagnosis for your child. Then it requires evaluating the two types of accommodations plans your child will need based on his academic, behavioral and/or sensory profile. That is where I will focus below.

I think my child has ADHD – what should I do?

If you and/or your child’s teacher suspect that your child’s inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive behavior may point to ADHD, your first stop is likely your pediatrician’s office. Not all pediatricians will complete an ADHD evaluation or offer a diagnosis, however, your pediatrician is a good first stop because she can refer you to a trusted psychologist or neurologist who can evaluate and diagnose symptoms.

A neurologist or psychiatrist can diagnose ADHD. However, you should not rely on them to tell you what type of supports your child needs in the classroom. Your neurologist may make some recommendations but you won’t get a comprehensive understanding of your child’s learning profile, nor will you learn about what classroom accommodations are shown to improve focus and learning.

This is often where a psychologist comes in. A psychologist can offer testing for educational achievement, cognition or IQ, and executive functioning – all of which help to shape your child’s learning style profile, bring into focus his academic strengths and weaknesses, and lead to recommendations for classroom accommodations. This psycho-educational evaluation often also brings to light related learning disabilities that may be complicating your child’s diagnosis, treatment, and school performance.

What is a 504 Accommodation Plan?

A 504 Accommodation Plan is guided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure that a student with a disability has access to accommodations that improve academic functioning.

In order to qualify for a 504 Plan, a student must have a diagnosis for a physical or emotional disability, or impairment (e.g., ADHD) that restricts one or more major life activities (e.g., attention, class participation).

Once a diagnosis exists, the parent prepares a letter to the school’s 504 Committee specifying the disability as well as the accommodations needed by the student. When you prepare your letter, start it with, “I would like to request a 504 Accommodation Plan for my child due to a diagnosis of ADHD, which restricts one or more major life activities and his ability to access the curriculum.” Identify your child’s date of birth, grade, teacher (if in elementary school), and attach a letter from your psychologist, pediatrician, neurologist, or psychiatrist indicating an ADHD diagnosis and type (e.g., Inattentive, Hyperactive/Impulsive, or Combined).

A 504 Accommodation Plan can also provide extended time or small group administration for statewide testing for your child.

Note that a student is not able to receive specialized instruction (e.g., In Class Resource Program or Out of Class Resource Replacement) – or related services, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy or physical therapy – through a 504 Accommodation Plan.

What is an IEP?

An IEP or Individualized Education Plan is guided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and provides special education and related services to a student who is identified as having a disability that negatively impacts her ability to receive academic instruction. A student who receives special education services is entitled to modification of curriculum, classroom accommodations, specialized instruction, and related services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and/or counseling (by the School Social Worker or School Psychologist).

A parent or teacher refers the child for special education and related services, and your child can be tested by the Child Study Team. These evaluations can consist of the following: Psychological Evaluation, Educational Evaluation, Social Evaluation, Speech Evaluation, Physical Therapy Evaluation, Occupational Therapy Evaluation. Other evaluations, such as a Central Auditory Processing Evaluation, neurological exam, or psychiatric evaluation are often conducted by professionals outside of the school who are contracted by your school Board.

A student with an IEP is re-evaluated every three years to determine continued eligibility. However, a parent can request a re-evaluation sooner than three years, but not less than one year. An IEP is also reviewed annually.

But the Department of Education says a 504 Plan ‘could’ include special education and related services. Is this true?

504 Accommodation Plans through ADA do not have funding, however, IDEA for Special Education and IEPs does. As a result, a child is not able to formally receive special education and related services through a 504 Plan.

If a child needs a special education program and related services, the would contact the Child Study Team and create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

A child with a 504 Plan can be placed in a class with a second teacher (special education teacher, for co-teaching in a Pull Out Resource Program) but that is not counted toward the number of students under the special-education umbrella (because there are student-to-teacher ratios that needs to be maintained). That student is considered a general education student. The same applies for a student placed in a class with paraprofessional support. The child can benefit from the staff member in the class, but the paraprofessional is not placed in that class for the student with the 504 Plan. He or she is there for the child or children with an IEP. However, they will not deny another student support if they require it.

Also, some districts will provide related services such as counseling by a CST member or Occupational Therapy under a 504 Plan, but this is very district specific. It is not written in the law, but some districts (if they have the available staff) will provide it to a student.

This sounds complicated, but essentially a 504 Plan is meant for children within the general education scope. Special education falls under an IEP and IDEA. A general-education child does not receive special education services under a 504 Plan. If they do, it is because the specific district has agreed to do so. In special education, there is a lot of room for gray, and things vary from district to district. I see it as a private psychologist who attends IEP and 504 plan meetings just within my county here in New Jersey.

IEP or 504 Plan?

If your child needs accommodations in the classroom — such as being seated away from windows and close to the teacher — but not an academic program, your child needs a 504 Plan.

However, if your child has a learning weakness or disability, consider an IEP. If your child needs related services on top of that, consider an IEP.

So, if you’re suspecting that your child has ADHD, begin with a qualified diagnosis and be sure to consider related learning disabilities. With that information in hand, you can begin to evaluate the best way forward for your child and her academic career.