By Miranda Milana, Psy.D.
If your child has ever undergone an evaluation through their school system or received an outside neuropsychological evaluation, chances are you have heard the terms “504 plan” or “IEP” thrown around. Given that it can be difficult to understand the differences between the two, we will break down what both of these terms mean and how they might apply to your child.
What is an IEP?
IEP stands for Individualized Education Program and provides specialized instruction, program modification, and accommodations through the public school system based on a student’s disability and how it impacts access to the curriculum. IEPs must include:
- Annual goals that are measurable via benchmarks
- Progress reports of the student’s current performance
- Descriptions of how services will be provided
- Outlined transition services as the child ages
In addition, IEPs must detail what academic environment would be the least restrictive, and therefore, most suitable for the student to appropriately access the educational curriculum.
Who is eligible for an IEP?
In order to qualify for an IEP, students must receive an evaluation either through the school system or through an outside provider that outlines the student’s disability status and how it negatively impacts accessing the educational curriculum. Importantly, a diagnosed disability is not enough to quality for an IEP on its own. Instead, the disability must be impacting the student’s ability to make effective progress in the general education program, which includes both academic and non-academic offerings of the district. Some examples of qualifying diagnoses include (but are not limited to):
- Emotional Disturbance
- Intellectual Disability
- Specific Learning Disability
A parent or caregiver may ask what happens if their child has a diagnosed disability but does not require special education services? Instead, the team may determine, through the eligibility process, that the student only requires accommodations, such as extended time on tests.
This is a perfect example of when a student might not qualify for an IEP and would instead be considered for a 504 plan. Simply put, IEPs and 504 plans both provide accommodations; however, 504 plans do NOT provide for specialized instruction or program modifications.
What is a 504 plan?
A 504 plan is referred to as such because it is covered under Section 504 of a federal civil rights law called the Rehabilitation Act. This law works to ensure that students receive appropriate supports and accommodations within the academic setting. 504 plans outline accommodations for students which can include some of the following (but again, accommodations are not limited to the following):
- Preferential seating
- Extended time on tests and quizzes
- Reduced distraction testing environments
- Access to class notes
- The use of a calculator during exams
As you can see, none of these accommodations is modifying the curriculum or providing a student with educational services as would be the case with an IEP.
Who is eligible for a 504 plan?
Any student with a disability impairing functioning in one or more areas is eligible for a 504 plan. One common example would be a student with diagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who requires distraction-reduced testing environments and/or other associated accommodations but does NOT require specialized academic instruction.
Another example is a parent of a child with an autism spectrum diagnosis may find that their child was found to be ineligible for an IEP through the special education eligibility determination process. Shouldn’t the student qualify for an IEP based on the autism disability?
The answer is not necessarily. If a student has a diagnosis of autism but is showing no signs of impairment within the academic setting (i.e., making appropriate academic progress, showing no signs of emotional distress, doing well with their peers, etc.), an IEP would not be warranted. Instead, a 504 plan would likely be considered (but again, is not guaranteed if academic functioning is not impaired).
If you feel your child requires a 504 plan or IEP and you are not sure where to start, contact your child’s special education program at their school. You may also wish to consult with an educational advocate or attorney who has a thorough understanding of special education laws.
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2018, June 29). Education Laws and Regulations. 603 CMR 28.00: Special Education – Education Laws and Regulations. Retrieved August, 2022, from https://www.doe.mass.edu/lawsregs/603cmr28.html?section=05
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. (2014, July 14). Section 504 and the Americans with disabilities act. Section 504 – Special Education. Retrieved August, 2022, from https://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/links/sec504.html
About the Author
Dr. Miranda Milana provides comprehensive evaluation services for children and adolescents with a wide range of concerns, including attention deficit disorders, communication disorders, intellectual disabilities, and learning disabilities. She particularly enjoys working with children and their families who have concerns regarding an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Milana has received specialized training on the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).
Dr. Milana places great emphasis on adapting her approach to a child’s developmental level and providing a testing environment that is approachable and comfortable for them. She also values collaboration with families and outside providers to facilitate supports and services that are tailored to a child’s specific needs.
Before joining NESCA, Dr. Milana completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Developmental Medicine department, where she received extensive training in the administration of psychological and neuropsychological testing. She has also received assessment training from Beacon Assessment Center and The Brenner Center. Dr. Milana graduated with her B.A. from the University of New England and went on to receive her doctorate from William James College (WJC). She was a part of the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience (CFAR) program while at WJC. Her doctoral training also included therapeutic services across a variety of settings, including an elementary school, the Family Health Center of Worcester and at Roger Williams University.
Dr. Milana grew up in Maine and enjoys trips back home to see her family throughout the year. She currently resides in Wrentham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two golden retrievers. She also enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and cheering on the Patriots, Bruins, Red Sox, and Celtics.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.