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Education Essentials

What you need to know to build and implement IEP and 504 plans for your child

Some students with complex physical or cognitive needs have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), and some have 504 plans (named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), while others may not elect to use these plans. Both plans are intended to assist students in gaining access to a free appropriate public education, but there are differences between the two methods. Here are some tips on how to choose a plan and implement it to improve your child’s educational experience.

Choosing a plan

There is a lot of overlap between IEPs and 504 plans. The key is for parents to be aware of the pros and cons of each, and keep a close eye on how well the plan is meeting your child’s needs at school.

A common mistake is thinking that IEPs and 504 plans have the same procedural guidelines. IEP teams must follow strict procedures, guidelines and timelines, while Section 504 only requires schools to notify parents that their child has been identified, evaluated and placed under the plan.

For example, in order for a child to receive services, every detail of the IEP must be documented and parents must sign off on any changes. An IEP team also must meet at least once a year. On the other hand, a 504 plan doesn’t have to be in writing, and schools aren’t required to involve the parents in the process in any way, including when making changes.

With 504 plans, the responsibility is on parents to keep the lines of communication open. Parents should ask the school to create a written document, which can ensure greater accountability and consistency in the 504 plan’s implementation. Try to schedule regular meetings with school staff, and make sure the 504 plan is updated annually.

IEPs are subject to extensive procedural safeguards for children and parents, especially for filing complaints and due process hearings. Parents can file a complaint with the state department of education, and the law requires impartial hearings when parents and schools disagree.

Section 504 affords parents the right to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. It also permits parents to examine relevant records and request a hearing to review allegations of discrimination.

Implementing your child’s plan

Follow these tips to improve your child’s educational experience, whether you have an IEP or 504 plan:

1. Be the best advocate you can be.

Do your homework, and know as much as you can about your child’s disease and special education laws. Knowledgeable parents tend to have more credibility with school staff and, when necessary, can challenge the school’s recommendations more successfully.

A county social worker, a special education attorney or your local MDA Family Care Specialist  can help you find relevant reading material and internet resources. For help finding local resources, reach out to the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and the MDA National Resource Center.

In addition, each state has a Parent Information Center. They may be called different names, so contact your state department of education or district’s special education office for more information.

Remember, that being a good advocate also means empowering your child to advocate for themselves. They should have an active role in requesting what accommodations will be helpful, understand the process for requesting accommodations, and they should attend any meetings with the school.

2. Learn from other parents.

Take time to locate and connect with other parents through support groups, online chats or simple conversations at social events, including MDA support groups and educational events and seminars. Parents who attend meetings with each other not only receive support but also get to see what issues may arise so they can figure out strategies for their own plans.

3. Be well organized.

Study the law, your rights and your child’s educational file, and have information readily available for future reference. It may be helpful to keep a notebook or folder that includes past IEPs, the complete educational file and IEP meeting notes. Documentation is the best defense if there’s a conflict or disagreement over services, so keep good notes detailing phone calls and other interactions with school personnel.

Also include “unofficial” documents that may not be in your child’s file. For instance, parents can request copies of teacher notes used to evaluate the child’s progress. A teacher may consult these notes to complete progress reports or report cards.

4. Distribute a report prior to meetings.

A report helps parents and administrators learn more about your child as a person. Whether simple or complex, the report should discuss the child’s strengths, needs and challenges, as well as your goals, objectives, modifications, adaptations and suggestions. The report also can be a useful educational tool about neuromuscular disease and its effects on your child.

Distribute the report at least a week before the meeting. It helps to minimize the apprehension the staff might feel about a student with complex needs, and it helps get all your child’s needs met by fully informing those involved. The report makes a good first impression and helps all those involved put together an effective plan.

5. Know what you want.

To learn about your options, take advantage of the special education office’s resources. Gather research, data or testimonials from experts to show that certain accommodations or modifications improve a child’s chances for success.

Once you’ve gathered information, figure out what you want. Go into meetings with a general idea of what type of assistance, equipment or specialized instruction (IEPs only) you believe are necessary to help your child with academic and functional limitations.

For instance, some parents request curb-to-curb pickup by the bus; physical assistance opening heavy classroom doors; an extra set of books in the classroom so the student does not have to carry theirs from home; desks that accommodate wheelchairs; extra time between tasks or assignments; breaks for fatigue; shorter assignments that focus on the mastery of key concepts; or computers with voice-recognition capabilities.

6. Bring backup.

IEPs and 504 plans can be stressful but are ultimately intended to set the individual up for success. Alleviate anxiety and give yourself another set of ears by taking someone with you to meetings, such as a spouse, family member, friend, another parent or your MDA Family Care Specialist.

7. Build relationships and communicate often.

Teamwork is the key to building any effective plan. Don’t expect perfection, but work with school personnel to find common ground, because, at the end of the day, you all want the best education for your child. It helps to build relationships outside of your IEP and 504 plan meetings. Look for opportunities to get involved in your school community by volunteering or participating in school committees and functions.


Comparing IEPs and 504 Plans

Individualized Educational Plan (IEP)

What is it? An IEP is the educational blueprint to meet a child’s special education needs in the “least restrictive environment.” It is covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

Who qualifies? To qualify, a child’s disability must adversely affect educational performance and progress, even if the child is achieving good grades. A school-funded evaluation determines whether special education services are needed for the child to meet general curriculum requirements. States decide if children who need only “related services” (like occupational or physical therapy) qualify for specialized services.

What does the plan cover? IEPs address physical assistance, academic adaptations, specialized instruction, technological equipment, and related services like occupational, physical and speech therapy.

Who creates the plan? The team includes parents, teachers, administrators and experts in different areas. The IEP team must meet at least once a year. Changes cannot be made to the plan without the parents’ OK.

504 Plan

What is it? Named after Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights law, 504 plans ensure equal access to education for students with disabilities.

Who qualifies? Section 504 defines a person with a disability as “any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.” If a school receives federal money, it’s required to follow a 504 plan’s provisions.

What does the plan cover? 504 plans address all the same areas as IEPs, with the exception of specialized instruction.

Who creates the plan? 504 plans don’t have to be written documents, nor are parents required to be part of the decision-making process. In practice, however, parents typically help create and monitor the plan, and schools usually create a written 504 plan.


Looking for More?

Be sure to visit MDA's K-12 Educational Resources for additional guidance.

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