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504 Plan or IEP: What Is The Best Plan For Your Child's Needs?

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

"Ask the Advocate" is our forum to bring you answers to questions that are timely and important to families of students with disabilities. Each month I will ask Lorraine Hightower, Dyslexia Advocate and Consultant, your top questions and bring her answers to YOU!

What are 504 Plans and IEPs?

The public school systems are required to provide students with disabilities a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This means that they have an obligation to provide qualifying students with a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These formal plans provide students with disabilities a Free and Appropriate Public Education as required by federal law.

504 Plans fall under the provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These plans are designed to allow students with disabilities access to the grade level curriculum as well as prevent discrimination as a result of their disability. They level the playing field for students by putting accommodations and sometimes services in place to allow the child to access their free and appropriate public education.

IEPs fall under the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These plans are designed to meet the unique needs of the child and prepare them for the future. These plans allow for remediation, related services, and accommodations as needed to provide the student their free and appropriate public education.

What are the differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP?

There are many important differences between the two plans. We have created this helpful chart to

break down the differences for you so that you can determine which plan may be right for your child.

There are a few specific differences that I would like to expound upon, as they are important to the dyslexia community. IEPs allow for more services and support in order to meet your child’s unique needs. As it says in its name, IEPs are individualized. For children with dyslexia, this is a very important distinction as their reading skills are often at varying levels. They need Structured Literacy intervention that is designed to address their individualized needs as compared to their same age and grade level peers. 504 Plans do not allow for the remediation necessary to bridge an achievement gap.

Another critical difference is that 504 Plans do not require parents to be a part of the decision making process. The school can decide which accommodations are appropriate for a student without any parent input. While many districts provide parents with a written plan of some sort, regulations do not require that a written plan be created. However, if your student qualifies for an IEP, parents are included in the decision making process and the educational plan is reviewed annually. More importantly, in a few states like Virginia, parent consent is required before a school district can even implement a child’s IEP. Parent involvement is one of the benefits to your child qualifying for an IEP.

How does the school determine 504 Plan and IEP Eligibility?

First, your school district will need to conduct an evaluation to determine your child’s needs. (Want to know more about how to request an evaluation from your district? Check out our October 2020 blog, Dyslexia: The Most Common Learning Disability Few People Know About. We share information and advice about requesting an evaluation when we answer the question, “What can I do if I suspect my child has dyslexia?”)

After understanding your child’s present levels and any achievement gaps that may exist, school teams will consider which plan your child is eligible. In both cases the school team is looking for data and/or a diagnosis that shows there is a disability and that the disability is having an adverse impact on the child’s ability to receive FAPE.

According to the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, to be eligible for a 504 Plan, “a student must be determined to: (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or (2) have a record of such an impairment; or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment.” Students with a medical diagnosis such as a Specific Learning Disability, ADHD or behavioral disorders may be eligible for a 504 plan if it substantially limits one or more of their major life activities such as learning.

Determining eligibility for an IEP is a bit more complicated. There are different eligibility categories that the school will consider such as Speech and Language, Other Health Impairment, or Emotional Disability. Students with dyslexia typically qualify under the category of Specific Learning Disability. Schools use criteria worksheets to walk the team through the decision making process. Some school districts make these criteria worksheets public on the internet. You can see the criteria worksheets used by Fairfax County Virginia Public Schools here. If your district does not have their eligibility criteria worksheets online, you can request a copy from the special education department.

What if a dyslexic child is getting help from their school, but they do not have a formal plan? Is that good enough? What is the benefit of having a formal plan?

Many districts will offer some support and accommodations through an informal plan. Often, school teams will meet to determine how to help a child prior to moving forward with a formal evaluation. This is a wonderful way to provide students with support while waiting for the wheels of special education to turn. There are different names for these committees across the country. In Northern Virginia, you may have heard them referred to as Child Study or Local Screening Committees.

The problem is that students often get stuck in these informal plans for years. What was meant to be a temporary, supportive solution becomes an appropriate intervention plan in the eyes of the school district. Many parents don’t mind that their child has an informal plan because their child is finally getting some help. But we caution parents to remember that these informal plans do not have federal timelines or requirements based on IDEA law or Section 504 regulations. School teams can make decisions without a formal evaluation to understand the child’s present levels of performance and can add or remove services as they see fit. These plans may not follow your child from year to year or from school to school.

We encourage parents to ensure that the school team continues to move forward with evaluation and eligibility determinations, while keeping the child’s informal plan in place. If your school team is not leading the way to evaluation...we recommend that you lead the way by making that formal referral for special education services. Once you make a referral for special education services in writing, Virginia regulations state that “the school team shall meet within 10 business days following receipt of the referral. If the team determines that a child should be referred for an evaluation, the team shall refer the child to the Special Education administrator within 3 business days. If the team decides not to refer for an evaluation, prior written notice (PWN) shall be given to parent(s) including the parent(s) right to appeal the decision.” It is best to begin the referral process as soon as possible. If your child qualifies, 504 Plans and IEPs will provide your child protections that are not afforded by informal school plans.

Is it possible to be found eligible for one of these formal plans even if the child is getting good grades?

Yes! Grades can be subjective and cannot be relied upon as the only indicator for a disability. Children with dyslexia are intelligent! In fact, in order to receive a diagnosis of dyslexia you must be of average or above average intelligence. I have shared that my son, who is severely dyslexic, was given a prize for his fluent reading. I couldn’t understand the difference between what I was seeing and what was happening at school. It turns out that my son was memorizing the passage he was being tested on. He was reciting, not reading fluently. His test scores looked great because he figured out a way around the assessment.

Also, we are hearing that the disconnect between teachers and students in a virtual environment is also making it difficult for teachers to identify problems and give grades that reflect all that is happening with that child. We caution parents not to use grades as a sole indicator of progress in “normal times” and especially in these extraordinary times.

There are other types of data that you can find to support your concerns. You can review literacy benchmark data that is available from your school to see if they show a deficit in reading. Writing samples and recordings of your child reading a grade level passage are also powerful pieces of information. You may want to collect data about how many times your child needs to be redirected in the course of the day...whatever fits your child’s needs and situation. The point is to gather as much parent data as you can to support your request for a formal evaluation. Your data does make a difference~ the Virginia Department of Education released guidance to schools stating that parent data is important and should be considered by the team.

As you go through the process of making your referral for special education services, think about not only sharing the data you gather, but also real life examples of the adverse impact your child’s struggles have on them at home and in school. For instance, a child who struggles with reading may exhibit avoidance behaviors when asked to do a task that includes reading. They may act out in school or at home to get out of going to (or logging into) school. They may refuse to use the chat box, as it showcases their spelling deficits to their peers. Homework may send them to tears. Share these difficulties with the school team, as they will help the team understand the severity of the situation.

These formal plans are here to help children with disabilities get the support they need in school. If your child needs support, do not hesitate to take action and make a referral to the special education designee in your school. It can be a long process to determine which of these plans is best for your child, but the protections they afford to those who qualify and the positive changes in your child's life are worth the effort!


Do you need help getting the special education wheels turning in your school? If so, I can help!

I have helped countless families of children with dyslexia make a plan for their child's unique educational needs and see that plan through with Virginia school districts.

While it isn’t always easy, parents always have options. I offer complimentary “What Keeps You Up at Night” consultations (click the link to book a free consultation) so that we can discuss your child and what they need to access the curriculum and thrive in school. I would love to talk with you about how I might make a difference for your child and your family!


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