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An Overview of What You Need to Know About IEPs and 504s

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This is the first of six education resource guides which give information and tips on how to navigate special education and disability services at primary, secondary and university levels.

Jump to resource guide 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6College with inclusion programs for students with disabilities

This overview will answer the following questions:

  • What types of plans help disabled students in public school education?
  • What is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?
  • What is a 504?

If you or your child has disabilities, chronic illness(es) or mental health concerns, schoolwork may be impacted. Fortunately, there are laws and programs in place to support you or your child in primary and secondary education. This guide is primarily targeted at students who attend public schools, including charter schools, in the United States.

Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and 504s are available throughout the U.S. Below is what you need to know about each of these programs, the laws that protect them, advice for both registering you or your child in these programs, and advice for making sure you or your child are receiving the best possible accommodations. 

IEP and 504s can offer similar accommodations, but the laws that protect them are different, and there are more safeguards in an IEP. An IEP can provide specialized instruction and changes to the curriculum, whereas a 504 is more about giving accommodations to a student who is already following a set curriculum. 

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

An individualized education plan (IEP) is a plan which details what a child’s special education experience will be like at school. IEPs exist in part because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law requires public schools to create tailored education plans to support students with disabilities. These plans can include occupational therapy, extended test-taking time and/or having a teacher’s aide. They should also include specific needs in case of an emergency, though many do not realize schools often rely on students and parents to ensure this is included.

To qualify for an IEP, a student has to fit two requirements:

  1. A student has to have one or more of the 13 specific disabilities listed in IDEA. 
  2. The disability or disabilities must affect a student’s educational performance.

The process of filing for a request for an IEP varies per school district, so a parent or student should contact a relevant member of the administration or special education department with specific details. 

According to, an IEP team tends to have five to seven members, but, per IDEA, teams are required to have at least the first five of the following members:

  1. A parent or legal guardian who can best advocate for the student.
  2. At least one of the student’s general education teachers
  3. At least one of the student’s special education teachers
  4. A school district representative who approves resources for the student.
  5. An expert who can interpret the student’s evaluation results. This can be a special education teacher or school psychologist.
  6. The student once they are 16 years old.
  7. An interpreter by request

These meetings can sometimes be daunting and overwhelming for parents. Mighty contributor Mallory Whitmore finds it important to have a pre-IEP meeting checklist, which includes the following:

  1. Asking for a copy of the student’s IEP in advance to review ahead of time
  2. Type up your concerns as a parent on the IEP. This tends to be on the second page
  3. Make a list of priorities that you will address in the meeting in terms of importance
  4. Make sure that your paperwork is organized and prepared to reference during these meetings
  5. Bring examples and documentation, like a therapist’s note. These people will likely only see your child in an educational setting, so it is important to paint a full picture
  6. Invite people to join. You are allowed to bring whoever you want with you.
  7. Come with questions and be prepared to brainstorm some more based on information that you learn in these meetings.

It would be great to think schools would go above and beyond to provide all possible resources to students who have IEPs, but this may not be the case. This is why IEP meetings, as well as following up with schools, are important in guaranteeing students with disabilities have access to the best resources possible. 

Unfortunately, not every teacher reads or sticks to IEPs. That’s why we’ve also created an IEP supplement — an easier-to-digest, downloadable document you can customize for yourself or your child. Print it out, and give it to your teachers — it may be easier for them to use daily.


A 504 is a plan to help students access education at primary and secondary education levels. 504s exist under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law created to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities. Like an IEP, a 504 could also include extended time on testing, an aide, or help with notetaking. 

To qualify for a 504, a student has to fit two requirements:

  1. A student has any disability, not just one included under the IDEA. 
  2. The disability interferes with a student’s ability to learn in a general education classroom.

The guidelines to who makes up a 504 team are practically nonexistent, except that attendees normally are around or know the student. These people can include:

  1. A parent or guardian
  2. General and special education teachers
  3. A school principal
  4. The student themselves

504 meetings are extremely important for students with 504s as well, and many, if not all, of Whitmore’s IEP suggestions carry over. 504s have fewer safeguards and legal guidelines than IEPs. Having fewer people involved in your child’s education plan may lead to them falling through the cracks. This is why standing up for your student is important. Remember, you are legally allowed to bring anyone you want to your child’s 504 meetings and can request the school bring other members. 

Whether you or your child is on an IEP or 504, it is important to advocate to receive the best resources possible. Guidelines regarding disability services and more information on federal guidelines can be found here. If you or your child believe your resources are inadequate, here are places per state or federally you can contact. 

Related articles

Jump to resource guide 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6College with inclusion programs for students with disabilities

Getty image by GlobalStock.

Originally published: August 13, 2019
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