IEP vs. 504: What’s the difference?

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

All students with ADHD have difficulty in school, so much so that many are eligible for special education services under one of two federal laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which covers Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act which covers 504 Plans. For students with ADHD, many of the accommodations and services that they need are covered under both plans, making it difficult to understand know which plan might be best fit for your child. Here’s a simple overview to help get you started:

Section 504 Plan
Section 504 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. It is intended to ensure that students with disabilities are provided with an equal opportunity to succeed at school. With 504 plans students receive instruction through the same regular education curriculum that is provided to all students in the classroom. To help students with disabilities access this curriculum and participate in activities, Section 504 allows for specific accommodations and evidence-based services tailored to each student’s individual needs. For children with ADHD, these accommodations may be things like a quiet place to take exams, reduced homework assignments, or positive behavior plans in the classroom that help them stay on task. Typically 504 accommodations and services can be implemented by the child’s classroom teacher without assistance from additional school staff and professionals.

Students with ADHD are eligible for a 504 Plan if their disability substantially limits their ability to fully participate in all academic and non-academic activities at school. When the school makes a determination about whether or not the disability is "substantially limiting" they must do so without taking into consideration the effect of treatments like medication or behavioral interventions that may alleviate symptoms when they are in use. 504 Plans list the accommodations that will be provided for the student, but they do not include a review of the student's academic performance or any specific learning goals.

504 Plans are typically used for students with ADHD who have less severe impairments, or who do not qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a detailed law that ensures students with disabilities are provided with schooling that clearly provides educational benefit– meaning that there is clear evidence that the child is able to learn and make academic gains in response to the instruction that they are receiving. For students with disabilities who are not able to learn through a standard educational curriculum, instruction must be tailored to meet their individual needs in the Least Restrictive Environment possible. This means that the educators should aim to have the student in a typical classroom environment to the greatest extent feasible. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is the detailed working document created for each eligible child, and serves as the cornerstone of his or her educational program and services. An IEP may contain the same accommodations as a 504 Plan, but may also include additional special education services like speech therapy, social skills groups, or occupational therapy. Often (but not always) these individualized services are provided by educational professionals and staff other than the main classroom teacher.

It is more difficult to qualify for an IEP than a 504 Plan. Formalized testing is required to determine eligibility for an IEP. This testing is provided by the school when a student is referred for an evaluation (by a parent, teacher, doctor, therapist, etc.) due to poor school performance. The evaluation assesses cognitive factors, emotional factors, academic achievement, and behavioral functioning. In addition to determining IEP eligibility, results are also used to make decisions about the student’s individualized accommodations and services and their learning goals.

IEPs are also much more detailed than 504 Plans. They include information about the student’s current level of performance, learning goals for the student, and progress monitoring over the course of the school year. Parents are involved in reviewing the student’s current level of performance, identifying learning goals and reviewing progress toward those goals.

Even when you are armed with knowledge and information, determining which plan is right for your child can be difficult and will require input from teachers, school administrators, special education staff, and possibly outside professionals like child psychologists and special education advocates. If you think your child may benefit from extra services at school, schedule a meeting with the school’s special education coordinator and learn about the process. If at any time you feel like the school is not being responsive to your requests, continue to make your concerns known and enlist the help of outside professionals if necessary. Your child deserves to have the accommodations and services that he or she needs in order to reach his or her full potential with ADHD. As a parent you are your child’s best advocate when it comes to getting him or her the services that he or she needs.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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