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scott   by Scott Lutostanski – Director of Academic Consulting

As a Special Education Consultant that works with parents, the most common question I field is, “What’s the difference between a 504 and an IEP?” If, as a parent, you’re in a position where you need this question answered, it usually means one of a few things: your student may have an existing 504 or IEP and you want more information; there may be a new diagnosis that has recently surfaced and you want to see how that translates into support in school; you feel your student needs more support in school; or maybe someone mentioned these terms to you once and you want to learn more.

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. It is a written plan to address a student’s needs in school. In order to have an IEP document, a student must qualify for special education in one of thirteen categories. These categories are vast with the most common being Specific Learning Disability (SLD), Speech Language Impairment (SLI), Autism, Other Health Impairment (OHI), and Emotional Disturbance. A student qualifies for an IEP when they meet the criteria in one of these categories, but most importantly, that their educational performance is “adversely affected” by the disability. In short, the student has a disability that impacts their academic ability to perform at grade level with their same age peers.

A 504 is also a document that outlines supports a student can receive. A student qualifies for a 504 when they have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” A major life activity is a vague term that can encompass pretty much anything: breathing, walking, seeing, hearing, or using the bathroom, to name just a few. There is no definitive list. Students can qualify for a 504 based on an endless list of diagnoses and an infinite list of major life activities that are impaired. A student with asthma will have impaired breathing. A student with an orthopaedic impairment, such as bone tuberculosis, will have an impaired ability to walk, lift objects, or stand. A student that has been diagnosed with ADHD will have impaired thinking and concentration, both considered major life activities.

So what are the major differences? An IEP offers more supports than a 504 because the eligibility criteria requires more impact on the student learning. In an IEP document, a student can receive direct support from a special education teacher or a clinician as well as accommodations both in the classroom and during testing. In a 504, a student does not receive direct support from a teacher; however, they will receive accommodations and could possibly work with a clinician (think: social worker or school psychologist).

Shades of gray start to exist depending on the type of diagnosis, with ADHD being one of the most common and confusing. Essentially, the severity of the ADHD will be need to be quantified. The school staff—teachers, psychologists, counselors, administrators—must now determine if the student’s ADHD “impairs one or more major life activities,” or if it instead “adversely affects educational performance” of the student. This can be a complicated decision. ADHD is not the only diagnosis that falls into this gray area. Anxiety, depression, and rare medical conditions often do as well.

This is merely a brief overview of some differences between a 504 and an IEP. These documents can be an entry into a deep and confusing world that can create unnecessary conflict and miscommunication with parents and schools. If you have questions about any special education related issues, feel free to contact me at ScottL@galined.com.

Looking for more information from Scott? Read more of Scott’s Special Education articles on ADDitudeMag, sign up for his Galin Chats in the Madison or Milwaukee area, and follow Scott on Twitter.


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