Advocacy in Ann Arbor: 504 Plan Vs. IEP

Lisa Woodcock-Burroughs, Ph.D., NCSP
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Nationally Certified School Psychologist

All children, adolescents and adults with disabilities may be entitled to school-based accommodations.  Accommodations are a way of leveling the playing field, as it were, and removing barriers. Some accommodations are temporary and put into place without these formal documents. For example, many of us have probably had the experience where either ourselves or one or more of our high school classmates had some type of injury that prevented their active participation in physical education class. When these students could not play volleyball or field hockey, they were still able to earn course credit and their participation was alternatively assessed. Other accommodations are longer term and have an ongoing impact on how a student is able to access the curriculum or showcase their knowledge.

Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and Section 504 plans are two different types of supports a student with a disability might have during their educational career. The documents are similar in that they both afford students accommodations; however, there are important differences as well. These similarities and differences are not always well understood by the family and friends of individuals with disabilities, or even the person with a disability themselves. Parents often ask me the question, “what is the difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan?” My purpose today is to highlight the similarities and differences between these two educational support documents.


  • They are binding legal documents that are put in place to support students with disabilities.
  • They are both provided at no charge to children and families.
  • Both provide needed accommodations, or changes to the learning environment, during a child’s primary and secondary educational career.
  • Related services (such as physical or occupational therapy) can be provided.


Individuals with any disability (including learning and attention difficulties) that interferes with their ability to learn in a general education environment qualify for a Section 504 Plan.

  • Differing Purposes:
    • The purpose of a 504 Plan is to provide reasonable accommodations to “level the playing field” for a student with a disability so that they can access the general education curriculum. However, there is no expectation of progress.
    • IEP’s, on the other hand, set specific learning goals, and set standards for determining whether or not students are meeting those goals.
      • IEP’s detail
        • The services that the school will provide a child, specifying when services will start, how often they will occur and how long they will last,
        • How the student will be included in the general education environment, including extra curricular activities (i.e. sports, band, clubs, etc.)
        • Any modifications, or changes in expectations, regarding what the student is expected to learn, and
        • How the student will participate in standardized tests.
  • School Level
    • 504 plans afford students accommodations at the post-secondary (college) level, while IEP’s do not.
    • Student’s with IEP’s during their primary and secondary educational careers often transition to having a 504 plan during college while students who have had 504 plans in place throughout high school often opt to continue these plans in college.

In order to obtain an IEP, a student must have a diagnosed disability, which has been recognized by the school district (e.g. they have been determined to be eligible). 504 plans may be afforded to students with “suspected” disabilities.

If you suspect you or your child may have a disability and require school-based accommodations, you may request an evaluation, free of charge, from your local school district, provided that your child is under the age of 26 and has not received their high school diploma.

We also offer screening evaluations for ADHD and learning disabilities at our clinic. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation would also be another option. Our evaluations not only help to pinpoint the exact nature of your child’s learning difficulty but results in the development of a comprehensive treatment plan, outlining both school- and community-based supports, to help your child reach their full potential in all areas of life.  Our evaluations can then be shared with your local school district to help facilitate the process of obtaining a 504 accommodation plan or IEP for your child.

For more information on the assessment services that we offer, please visit Neuropsychological Assessment, ADHD Screening and Learning Disabilities Assessment pages.