Understanding Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 Plans

By Educators Team at Understood
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The Difference Between IEPs and 504 Plans

You probably have a few students in your class who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan. When you’re handed these important documents at the beginning of the year, you may wonder about the differences between the two and the purposes they serve. And you may wonder what your responsibility is in making those plans work for the students in your classroom.

Both IEPs and 504 plans support students with learning and thinking differences and other disabilities, but they do so in very different ways. In part, that’s because IEPs and 504 plans are covered by different laws. IEPs are covered by special education law, while 504 plans fall under federal disability law. Typically, students are covered under one or the other, but it’s possible for a student to have both.

The purpose of an IEP is to outline the services, supports, accommodations, and specialized instruction you and the rest of the school staff will provide to meet your students’ needs and help them be successful.

A 504 plan outlines the specific supports you and other teachers must provide so a student can access the curriculum in general education classrooms. That might include accommodations such as extra time for tests, breaks during class, or specific seating in the classroom.

Anatomy of an IEP

Although IEPs are individualized to meet the specific needs of the student, the format is often the same from plan to plan. Knowing the standard elements in an IEP can help you interpret the plan and put it into action.

All IEPs have a section on the individualized instruction and other services a student will receive. These services, such as resource instruction in reading, writing, math, social skills, or behavior, typically take place outside the general education classroom.

Another section states the accommodations, modifications, and other supports the student will get within the general education classroom. A third section outlines how, and to what extent, the student will be included in the class and in other activities, such as tests.

IEPs also have sections on the student’s level of performance, annual goals, and reports on how the student is progressing toward meeting those goals.

How 504 Plans Help Students With Disabilities

If you have students with a 504 plan, you may wonder about the law behind it. What type of protections do your students with disabilities have?

504 plans are covered under a federal civil rights law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This law gives students with disabilities such as ADHD and anxiety disorders the right to the supports they need to access learning in school. Often, those supports are accommodations in the classroom, which you’ll be responsible for implementing. For example, a student who has a 504 plan due to ADHD may have access to fidgets or preferential seating in the classroom.

Section 504 doesn’t require schools to have a written document outlining the accommodations, although most schools put the plan in writing.

What “SMART” IEP Goals Look Like and How They Help

You may have seen IEP goals that struck you as vague, such as “Jenna will be a better speller.” Goals like this can keep your students from getting the most out of special education. They can also make it harder for you to know what those students are working toward.

While your school isn’t required to write IEP goals in any specific way, the best goals are SMART, meaning they’re Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-oriented, and Time-bound.

For example, instead of saying a student will improve at math, a SMART goal would target specific skills—such as adding fractions—for that student to work on. The goal would be within the student’s reach, and it would also include a clear way to measure progress.

IEPs That Look at Strengths, Not Just Weaknesses

If you’re like most teachers, you use your students’ strengths and interests to help them build skills and learn classroom material. A new type of IEP works in the same way to help students reach their annual goals.

A strengths-based IEP spells out how a student will use a specific strength to work on a specific weakness to reach a goal. Instead of an annual IEP goal simply stating what the student will achieve in what amount of time, it would also state how the student will get there, leveraging that student’s abilities and passions.

Through a strengths-based IEP, you can get information about your students’ strengths that you might not otherwise be aware of. You can put that knowledge directly to use in your classroom.

About the Author

About the Author

Educators Team at Understood 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, educators, and subject matter experts who have worked in classrooms and with students who learn and think differently.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Mark J. Griffin, PhD 

was the founding headmaster of Eagle Hill School, a school for children with specific learning disabilities.

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