IEP & 504 - What is the Difference

Although students can receive supports either through a Section 504 plan or under an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the level of support varies between the two - based on what the student needs to successfully make educational progress.

The most important difference between these two plans at school is the delivery of specially designed instruction. Only special education, or the IEP, provides for specially designed instruction, in addition to other needed accommodations and related services. A Section 504 plan does not provide specially designed instruction, but it does provide accommodations and other needed services.

Specially Designed Instruction

Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction. This is done to give access to the general education curriculum and state standards, and also to address the unique needs of the child. A special education teacher typically adapts or changes the content, methodology or delivery of instruction to help students with disabilities understand and learn concepts, and gain much-needed skills, at school.

A student may need accommodations based on their disability, and not need specially designed instruction to benefit from their education. When this is the case, a student will continue to make progress with a Section 504 plan. It is expected that the student will learn the general education curriculum only from the instruction provided by the general educator when appropriate accommodations are put into place and consistently provided.

If a student needs accommodations and also requires specially designed instruction to make progress, this signals the need to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place that will have within it information about it. A student on an IEP requires additional help in the form of specially designed instruction to benefit from their education, making this plan more comprehensive given the greater need shown by the student.

By taking into account what the student needs on an individual basis, the student, the parent(s), and the school will need to determine what the plan of best fit is. In general, it is possible for a student to move from one plan to the other if needed, since students themselves are also continuously changing in their individual growth and development. When more supports are needed, more supports are provided. When less supports are needed, less supports are provided. Overall, schools and families have the flexibility to decide what is needed for the student based on the student’s current circumstances. Ultimately, the decision will be based on what plan will be able to help the student receive a free and appropriate public education.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Center for Parent Information and Resources
A large resource library related to children with disabilities. Locate organizations and agencies within each state that address disability-related issues.

Find Your Parent Center
Parent Centers provide education and referrals for families with a child who has a disability, as well as the professionals who work with them. There are almost 100 Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) in the US states and Territories; Center for Parent Information & Resources.

U.S. Department of Education
Official website of the U.S. Department of Education.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
Official U.S. Department of Education website of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act including Part B (ages 3-21) and Part C (ages birth-2).

IDEA Procedural Safeguards (Part B)
Information about safeguards available to the parents of a child with a disability.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
Clarifies pertinent requirements of Section 504 and answers more than 40 often-asked questions; U.S. Department of Education.

Parent and Educator Resource Guide to Section 504 in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (PDF Document 644 KB)
This guide from the U.S. Department of Education provides information on what parents do when their child appears to need extra help in school, what kinds of assistance are available, who should parents speak with about their concerns and questions, and what is required of school staff.

Services for Patients & Families Nationwide (NW)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: February 2021
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Esperanza Reyes, MS
Reviewer: Tina Persels