Which Does Your Child Need: IEP or 504b?

IEP T-shirt

In a recent interview with Iowa professional learning and leadership consultant, Jennifer Peter. She explained the difference between an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and a 504b plan. Her explanation was so elegant and clear-cut, you deserve to hear it, too.


Schools are required by federal law to create IEPs for any school-aged student who has been tested and identified as needing special education assistance. IEPs are educational tools. They focus on remediating significant learning problems through instruction, not through medical treatment or physical means. Many students with IEPs have no physical disabilities.


504b plans are for students who need environmental accommodations so their physical disability won’t hinder their education. Students with disabilities requiring 504b plans may need no extra learning assistance, just some simple accomodations to remove physical barriers. Or they may need help with a physical disability or condition such as extra room for a child in a wheelchair, insulin shots for diabetics, an amplification system for a child with hearing loss, or help with a colostomy bag for a student with spina bifida.

Educational vs. Medical Diagnosis

Students with IEPs have an educational diagnosis, usually through the school system. Students with 504b plans have a medical diagnosis from a health care professional.  Jennifer gave this example.  “Learning disability is an educational diagnosis. Dyslexia is a medical diagnosis.”

Which One’s Right for Your Child?

Some students, those with both learning and medical issues, may have an IEP and a 504b plan. But if your child has learning issues, you need to pursue school testing, not a medical diagnosis. If your child has a medical condition that needs accomodation, you need a 504b plan from a doctor.

If you’re still puzzled, don’t feel bad. I taught school for 25 years and didn’t fully understand until Jenn cleared up my confusion. But if you have questions or another way to explain the difference between IEPs and 504bs, leave a comment. I’ll be glad to get back to you!

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  1. Bobbie Dawson Bobbie Dawson
    November 9, 2010    

    My daughter has been on an IEP plan for most of her elementary years because of her ADD and learning disabilities, such as reading. She is reading at a normal level now and is doing really well in Math also. So now they want to place her on a 504b because she still has some focus issues. Is this appropriate for a child who has been diagnosed with ADD. I know it is a medical diagnosis but it is not a physical medical diagnosis as she as stated above.



  2. November 9, 2010    

    Hmmm…I haven’t heard of using a 504b for ADD before. Could you tell me more about what would be included in the plan? It’s hard to comment without knowing a little more.

  3. Kristen Kristen
    September 24, 2011    

    My son keeps getting poor marks in hand writing, and has been seen by a private occupational therapist who states that he would qualify for OT. The schools state that he has to have a cognitive delay in order to get OT in the schools. Would a 504B plan allow him to receive private OT during school hours (as my husband and I work during the week, leaving no time for therapies otherwise)?
    Thank you.

  4. September 26, 2011    


    Sorry this response is so delayed. Life has been crazy around here for the past few weeks.

    I’m sorry I can’t answer your question very well. Qualifications for IEPs and 504b plans vary state by state, and I would hate to give you wrong advice. So instead, I will refer you to the 504b information and Q & A page at the WrightsLaw website:


    If that doesn’t answer your question, scroll to the bottom of the page and send your question in an email via “contact us.”

    You didn’t mention your son’s age, but as a former teacher, I have this advice. If your son’s handwriting is legible, don’t worry to much about the handwriting marks. They are the least of a child’s school worries. In this day and age, a simple solution is to teach him to keyboard (by middle school, teachers accept assignments printed out) instead. In fact, that could be his 504 accommodation now – learn keyboarding and allow him to turn in assignments printed on the computer.


  5. Lara Lara
    May 22, 2012    

    Hi. My kindergarten son seems very smart to me and my husband. He is a tactile learner who can read picture instructions on legos better than I can. Yet in school, he gets poor scores because he is not reading as they say he should. I realize that schools aren’t set up to cater to my son’s learning style. Would I ask the school for an IEP or a 504b, or is there something else I should ask for to help him get over his learning hurdles?

  6. May 22, 2012    

    Hi Lara,

    Good for you for tuning into your child’s learning style. Your son’s issues sound learning related rather than caused by a medical problem, so a 504b plan is not what he needs. Schools can’t give IEPs upon request. Instead, the teacher or parent requests testing to see if a child qualifies for an IEP by being statistically “discrepant from peers” as defined by federal law. Chances are, your kindergartener is not that discrepant. But you could ask the teacher if he qualifies for Title remedial services. You could also check into a summer tutor, summer school classes, or something like Sylvan Learning Centers.

    You can do many things at home, too. Read to him every day. Often. Lots. Enroll him in the library summer reading program. Take him to library story hour. Purchase some learning materials at Walmart or a teacher supply store – especially ones that teach the way he learns – and work with him on them. Find a book of science experiments. Read the directions together and do the experiments. Cook together, doing the same thing. Get books with corresponding CDs (the kind that give an auditory cue about when to turn the page) for him to “read.” An internet search could lead to websites with free downloadable resources you can also use.

    Hope that helps,

  7. Amber Amber
    July 19, 2012    

    I have a 6 year old son that will be starting 1st grade in August. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder with early traits of conduct disorder and intermittent-explosive disorder traits. I have not had much luck getting schools to understand his behavioral disorders, but he will begin a new school this year as well so I’m hoping it will be different. I am wondering which of these would be right for him? Since he was diagnosed by a psychiatrist (ADHD), and a psychologist (everything else), will further testing within the school need to be requested, or will these previous/recent evaluations be enough?

  8. July 20, 2012    

    Hi Amber,

    Different states and different school districts within states have their own procedures for IEP testing and 504 plans. From what you’ve described, your son will probably benefit more from an IEP than a 504 plan. That said, it is a long process. You should talk to your child’s teacher asap about his diagnoses and ask her to direct you to someone who can explain the district’s IEP testing process. Set up a meeting and take the previous test results with you. Even if you are proactive, it can be hard to get testing unless your child’s behavior or academic progress is highly discrepant from the norm. You may want to check out the Wrights Law website (http://www.wrightslaw.com/) as they have wonderful resources for parents wading through the public school IEP process.

    Best wishes,

  9. Carrie Z Carrie Z
    September 14, 2012    

    My 15-year-old son was diagnosed with Asperger’s a few weeks ago along with PPD. He does above average work in school, especially in math. He has trouble comprehending what he reads. He also has trouble with focusing due to the bright lights, extra noises and just the social aspect of school. I spoke to AEA and they say they do not do extra testing for such a student. There is enough testing through school they don’t offer more.
    The therapist started saying he would need a 504 but has since changed saying that an IEP would be better suited for him. She is talking about things such as wearing a hat in class to keep the lights out, ear plugs in the hallways where it’s extra noisy, etc…
    I’m confused and to make matters worse the school is not helping with anything. They say they won’t do an IEP or a 504. It takes a long time to do one…
    Please advise….thank you for taking the time to read.

  10. September 15, 2012    


    From what you said, my guess is your son would need a 504, not an IEP. But I am no expert. Have you been to the Wrights Law website (http://www.wrightslaw.com/)? Go there, poke around, and even contact them with your question if you don’t find what you need. They are the experts in this area.


  11. Melissa Melissa
    January 10, 2013    

    My son is 8 yrs old and has Tolerance fading memory and ADHD. We had started a 504 plan before he was diagnosed with the ADHD, although the doctor, the teacher & I believe he had it. I was wondering should we just stick with the 504 or should I ask them to look in to a IEP? He just started taking meds for the ADHD so we don’t really know yet if it will help. TFM is a subtype for Auditory Processing disorder. Thank you for your help.

  12. January 10, 2013    

    Hi Melissa,

    That’s a good question and one to discuss with your son’s teacher. The decision depends upon whether his learning ability, not just his physical ability, is hindering his learning process. If there’s a learning delay or obstacle, it might qualify for an IEP if he’s significantly enough discrepant from his peers. So start by talking to the teacher and ask about what your school’s process is for testing. Then go from there.

    Does that help?

  13. Tracy Tracy
    April 3, 2013    

    Hi Jolene,
    My Daughter is a Senior in High School and is generally a good student who gets A & B’s. Recently she became ill and the medication that she was given left her with vision problems as well as some other issues. (We are told the problem MAY correct itself, but when we have no idea) I’ve spoken with the Dean at her school who has recomended that we do a 504. Would you recommend this, being that there is only two months of school left? She is going to our local community college and then has plans to transfer to a four year university, will the 504 follow her and benefit her, or will it be a hinderance to her? Can you maybe give me some questions that I should be asking at the meeting? We live in Los Angeles, California.

    Tracy M.

  14. April 4, 2013    

    Hi Tracy,

    If she’s transferring to another school soon, it would be good to have the 504 Plan in place now, especially if the Dean is encouraging it. At the meeting, just ask questions about what accommodations are needed so your daughter can succeed. Check out this link for college students who need a 504 Plan. It may be of more help to you than I can be: http://www.wrightslaw.com/flyers/college.504.pdf

    Best wishes!

  15. Apryl W Apryl W
    April 14, 2013    

    Hi Jolene ,
    My son is 9yrs old and has been diagnosed with ADD , PDD Aspergergers and Tourettes Syndrome . He has had IEP’S in past years , Although other than giving his teachers and myself the opportunity to meet regularly I dont really see what the benefit was . This year he is having a lot of difficulty. He recieves average grades ( mostly because of the exausting effort put forth by his teacher and myself ) but struggles immensely with organization and focus ( He is on meds for the ADD and tourettes ). I have asked the teacher if an educational aide would help to keep him focused and on task or if we should look into a more specialized school althogether . In your oppinion , does the 504b sound like something that might benefit our situation ? As that is something the teacher had suggested. As a family we are feeling completely overwhelmed as or son is very bright but he just doesnt seem to be “making it ” and it just seems to keep getting harder . We really just dont know what is best . Thank You Apryl

  16. April 14, 2013    

    Hi Apryl,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer your question. That said, here’s my best advice. First of all, for your son to have an IEP, he must have gone through testing and qualified for special education services. Therefore, the IEP is required by law, no matter how helpful it is or isn’t. So far as needing a 504 plan in addition to an IEP, I’m not sure. If organization is what’s making him discrepant enough from his peers to qualify for special education services, then his IEP goals should reflect that. The special ed teachers should be working with him on organization.

    But, rather than rely on my limited expertise, visit http://www.wrightslaw.com and type “IEP goals for organization” in the search box. Many, many articles about the topic will pop up and perhaps some of them will give you more ideas.

    Best wishes!

  17. Kendra Kendra
    August 21, 2013    

    Hi, I’ll be starting grade 12 in about 15 days, recently I’ve been diagnosed with OCD. Also, my mum got me tested and the lady said I have a language based learning disability and should be getting back to us this week, what is your opinion on it, if I have dyslexia and OCD should I have an IEP, or a 504?

  18. August 21, 2013    

    Hi Kendra,

    The decision about whether you need an IEP or 504 plan is something to discuss with your doctor and school psychologists. Also, both documents are law in the United States only, so if you live in another country, the laws may be different. For an IEP, you will have to take some individualized educational tests (administered by the school or private, approved psychologists) to see if you qualify. If you need a 504, your doctor will need to provide documentation that you need accommodations in the environment. In either case you would be wise to visit the Wrights Law website (http://www.wrightslaw.com/) to read up on what the experts have to say and proceed from there. Hope that helps!

  19. September 19, 2013    

    I know you wrote this 3 years ago, but I just stumbled on it last night, and you have given me the cannonball I needed to blast through the wall of refusal my daughter’s school put up in front of me.

    This article, along with my perusal of NJ state educational law, tell me what I knew, but what the district refused: they cannot refuse me an IEP determination based on lack of a medical diagnosis from the pediatrician, who would not diagnose my daughter without a report from the child study team…which the school tried to deny on the grounds that my daughter isn’t failing and doesn’t have behavioral issues. Waiting for her to fail is unacceptable to me.

    She knows the material she is taught. She just lacks any ability to focus/stay on task/follow directions long enough to apply the knowledge at home and in the classroom.

    Reading this made me nearly cry in relief. It has been an emotional roller coaster these past 11 months.

    Thank you!!!

  20. September 22, 2013    

    You are welcome, Merry. I’m so glad the post is helpful to you. Best wishes in navigating your way through the IEP process! Come back and leave a comment about how it goes. You may also want to check with the Wright’s Law site. They are the experts in this area.

  21. Marie Marie
    April 30, 2014    

    My son is transitioning to high school and his elementary school wants to take him off his IEP before hand. He has been on an IEP since kindergarten, diagnosed with ADHD, OCD and anxiety. After 1st grade was sent to another school in district with a collab class, but came back to our town school once he graduated from 5th grade. He is an A/B student, and his school feels that his IEP is no longer necessary. He has a hard time with transitions in general and his OCD is already starting to increase. Any suggestions?

  22. May 1, 2014    

    Hi Marie,

    Sorry for the delay in this reply! It’s hard to comment since I don’t know your specific situation or the school’s. But as a general rule, it is not a good idea to get rid of an IEP at such an important transition time. Perhaps a better approach would be to create some goals to deal with the anxiety and OCD throughout the transition. Then once the transition’s made and successful gradually phase out the IEP.

    Have you talked to the people at Wrightslaw or visited their website at http://www.wrightslaw.com/. They’re the real experts in this area, so you may want to pose that question to them or search the site to see if they have any articles dealing with the topic.

    I hope that helps,

  23. Marie Marie
    August 2, 2014    

    My husband and I are both educators and we have been able to provide support for our son who has always struggled academically. Each year we’ve watched him work tirelessly to keep up with his peers, putting in hours and hours of time and effort yet still barely hanging in there. This summer, he was diagnosed with Noonan Syndrome – a genetically confirmed condition that would explain his the academic difficulties he’s experienced. The problem is that he has never failed miserably at school due to the hours of support he has received at home… his grade reports have always been average/basic. In your opinion, would an IEP, 504 or both be appropriate? I think a 504 may be what he needs however I’m just not positive. Thanks so much for your thoughts on the matter…

  24. August 4, 2014    

    Hi Marie,

    You ask a very good questions, and a hard one to answer without knowing your son. My guess is that a 504 plan might be useful for him. But you would be wise to search the Wrighslaw website, http://www.wrightslaw.com/, for articles and expert advice. You may even want to contact them with your questions. They are much more equipped to answer the question than am I.

    All the best,

  25. Ava Ava
    December 18, 2014    

    Your initial post is quite off track. Please read the laws relating to this. Are you a special education teacher? Our work is dictated by federal laws http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html
    Whether a student has a 504 or an IEP has NOTHING AT ALL to do with whether that child has a physical or mental disability. Many kids with ADHD have 504s, and kids with Cushing’s can have IEPs. It all depends on the level of support the child needs. These documents have different purposes: an IEP grants access to specialized instruction by someone who is certified in special education, and it includes goals, accommodations, and present levels of performance as well as many other components. A 504 plan includes only accommodations, and a special education professional does not need to be involved in the process. Again, the disability being physical or not is NOT AT ALL the deciding factor; it is the child’s needs. These plans come from different laws. Please familiarize yourself with them.

  26. Ava Ava
    December 18, 2014    

    Sorry, I was re-reading my comments and I realize I come across as harsh–I just get very passionate about these matters because there is just so much misinformation out there; I realize everyone is trying to do their best. Here is why the distinction I am making is important: Parents get MANY MORE RIGHTS with an IEP. A school may develop a 504 in their absence, legally. Also, a 504 does not need to be in writing. This is because it’s created under Section 504, not IDEA. IEPs are governed by IDEA, and parents get much, much more protection for themselves and the child. I would HATE to think that people reading this would mistakenly think that their physically disabled child does not qualify for an IEP–he may or may not; that is an IEP team decision that can only be made at the school level by the special education professionals who work directly with a particular child. On the “up side” of 504s, they follow a child out of the public school system and the rights go out into the working world after the child is 18–an IEP “dies” when the student leaves school. Well, sorry if I sounded harsh earlier… Hope this post was helpful to you.

  27. December 19, 2014    

    Thank you so much for your comment, Ava, especially this second one in which you clarified statements made in your previous one. You did a really good job of making the two laws and the IEP process easier for parents to understand. Another thing for parents to remember is that IEPs aren’t available upon request. Children have to be tested and their level of functioning has to be far below that of their peers. Depending on the child, that can be achieved quickly in some cases, but require much more time for others.

    To answer your question, yes I do have a special ed background. Also, this post was written based on an interview with a principal at a school for children with significant special needs. But it can be hard to clearly communicate the nuances of the law. You did a much better job than did I.

    Thank you for your contribution,

  28. April 12, 2016    

    I live in the state of PA. The school district South Butler is telling me that AHAD is a medical DX not a learning disability. They are also telling me it will take 60 days to do an IQ test to see if my son will qualify under abilities for an IEP. His psychiatrist gave him the DX and recommended the program. Am I getting the run around.

  29. April 13, 2016    

    It sounds like a run around. Have you gone to the WrightsLaw website? They have a lot of good information and may be able to connect you with an advocate in your area who can help you deal with your school system. Jolene

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Meet Jolene

Jolene Philo is a published author, speaker, wife, and mother of a son with special needs.



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