Understood Explains IEPs from Understood.org

with Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA

The terms IEP and 504 plan may come up a lot when you’re looking into special education for your child. These school supports do some of the same things, but one can provide more services and the other is easier to get. And it’s important to know the differences in order to get your child the support they need. On this episode of Beautifully Complex, you will hear an episode of Understood Explains, where host Juliana Urtubey breaks down the differences between IEPs and 504 plans, and which one might be right for your child.

3 key takeaways:
    1. 504 Plans vs. IEPs: Section 504 plans are covered by a civil rights law that aims to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities and primarily remove barriers in the general education setting. In contrast, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are covered under the special education law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IEPs provide specialized instruction and services tailored to meet the educational needs of students with a qualifying disability.
    2. Accommodations and Technologies: Both 504 plans and IEPs can offer accommodations, such as extended time on tests or alternative ways of completing assignments, as well as assistive technology to support learning. However, while 504 plans are inclined to focus on providing access, IEPs include these supports in addition to setting annual educational goals and monitoring progress.
    3. Special Education’s Structure: Specialized instruction is a key component of IEPs and is developed with input from a team, including parents as equal members. This is less common with 504 plans, where parent involvement is encouraged but not mandated. IEPs encompass more robust rights and protections, follow a more structured process for eligibility assessment, and require school evaluations. Conversely, 504 plans are generally easier to obtain and do not necessarily involve comprehensive school evaluations.

You’ll Learn

  • The differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP.

  • The special education services that IEPs provide and how they differ from 504 Plans.

  • Your rights and involvement as a parent in the creation and modification of an IEP compared to a 504 Plan.

  • The eligibility requirements for obtaining an IEP and how they differ from those for a 504 Plan.

  • When it might be necessary or beneficial to switch from an IEP to a 504 Plan or vice versa, and how to advocate for your child’s needs in either case.


Some of the resources may be affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission (at no cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.

Today’s Guest

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA

Juliana Urtubey is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. She’s taught in special education settings and developed a schoolwide, multi-tiered system of supports. In 2022, President Biden appointed her to the President’s Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics.

She has shared widely about “joyous and just” education, including at the White House and Harvard University, and has made national and international media appearances. In 2021, she was featured on the cover of People magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue, representing educators.

A National Board-Certified Teacher, she holds a BA in bilingual elementary education and an MA in special bilingual education from the University of Arizona. She’s a member of the board of directors and a teacher fellow for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.


Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:00:03]: With 504s, schools have to let parents know if a significant change is being made to the student's 504 plan. But the school doesn't have to send a written notice about this. With an IEP, schools have to send parents a letter and have a meeting with the full IEP team before they can change the IEP.

Penny Williams [00:00:24]: Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started. Hi, friends. Welcome back to Beautifully Complex. This episode, I'm doing something a bit different. I'm featuring an episode from another podcast.

Penny Williams [00:00:59]: It's called Understood Explains. This season of the show is hosted by teacher and special education expert, Julianna Ertubey, and it's all about how to navigate individual education plans, also known as IEPs, here in the United States, and we can all use help with special education and understanding that. The latest season of Understood Explains is covering topics like how to tell if your child needs an IEP, and it busts some common myths about special education. On this episode that you're about to hear, Juliana breaks down the differences between IEPs and 504 plans and which one might be right for your child. She has a real way of simplifying the complexities of special education that I know you're going to both appreciate and really benefit from. So here's the episode.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:02:00]: As you look into getting your child more support at school, you're likely to run into the terms IUP and 504 plan. They do some of the same things, but one has a lot more stuff and the other is a lot easier to get. On this episode of Understood Explains, we explore how these plans are similar and how they're different, and which one might be right for your child. From the Understood Podcast Network, this is Understood explains IUPs. Today, we're gonna learn about the differences between IEPs and 504 plans. My name is Julian Orteve, and I'm your host. I'm the 2021 National Teacher of the Year and I'm an expert in special education for multilingual learners. And speaking of languages, I want to make sure everyone knows all the episodes this season are available in English Let's get started.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:02:54]: Okay. So what's a 504 plan? Before we get into the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan, I want to quickly explain what a 504 plan is. This is a tailored plan that removes barriers to learning for a student with disabilities. The goal is to give the student equal access to learning. To do this, a 504 plan often includes assistive technology, meaning things like screen readers, noise canceling headphones, or speech to text software. Many 504s also include accommodations, which are changes in the way things get done. A common example is getting extended time on tests or getting to leave the classroom to take short breaks. And the other thing I wanna mention is that some 504 plans include services like speech therapy or study skill classes.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:03:43]: This doesn't happen all that often, but services can be part of a 504. So the basic components of a 504, assistive technology, accommodations, services. Right about now, you may be thinking that 504s sound a lot like IUPs, individualized education programs, and you're right. These two plans have a lot in common and can provide a lot of the same supports, but there are some key differences, and that's what the whole next section is about. Okay. So what's the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan? I'm going to focus on 3 key differences. First, IEPs provide special education services. Students with IEPs may spend a lot of time in general education classrooms, but the heart of an IEP is the specially designed instruction to help a student catch up with their peers.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:04:39]: For example, a student with dyslexia might get specialized reading instruction a few times a week. The IEP also sets annual goals and monitors the student's progress towards reaching those goals. So the key thing here is that IUPs provide special education. 504, on the other hand, do not provide special education. There are no annual reports or progress monitoring with 504. What 504s do is remove barriers to the general education curriculum. So 504s can be good options for, say, a student with ADHD or written expression disorder who doesn't need specialized instruction, but does need accommodations, like sitting in a less distracting part of the classroom or showing what you know in a different way, like giving an oral report instead of taking a written test. To give you a more detailed example, I wanna talk about a student of mine named Brian.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:05:33]: He had a 504 plan to help accommodate his vision impairment. To make the plan, I talked to Brian about what he needed, and I worked with the school's assistive technology department to find some helpful tools. We learned that Brian had an easier time reading and writing when he used a slant board to help raise up the paper. He also benefited from having what's called augmented worksheets. Rather than having a bunch of math problems on 1 sheet of paper, Brian would get several sheets. So the problems were spread out and enlarged and he could see them better. With these supports, Brian could do all the work on his own. And to create his 504, a school staff member wrote up the plan and included my suggestions for accommodations and assistive technology.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:06:17]: And the only thing we needed to get started was his parents' consent. And this brings me to the second big difference between IUPs and 504s. They're covered by different laws, and IUPs come with a lot more rights and protections than 504s do. So, for example, IEPs are covered by the federal special education law, which is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. This law is very focused on education, and one really important detail about IDEA is that it says parents are an equal member of the team that develops the IUP. But that's not true for 504s. 504 plans are covered by an important civil rights law called the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law bans discrimination against people with disabilities in several key areas.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:07:07]: It has a big section about employment. It has a big section about technology, and it also has a big section about education. This is where the name section 504 comes from. So IEPs and 504s are covered by different laws. And one difference between these laws is how much schools are required to involve parents. With a 504 plan, parents don't have to be equal members of the team. Schools don't have to involve parents in creating this kind of plan. They just need a parent's consent before starting to use it.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:07:35]: Although I wanna mention that many schools encourage families to help create the 504 plan, schools aren't required to involve them. There are also different rules about what schools need to do to make changes to these plans. With 504s, schools have to let parents know if a significant change is being made to the student's 504 plan, but the school doesn't have to send a written notice about this. With an IEP, schools have to send parents a letter and have a meeting with the full IEP team before they can change the IEP. And if parents want to dispute the changes, the school has to keep the current plan in place while the dispute gets resolved. With either of these plans, families can ask to make changes, but families have more rights and protections with IEPs. We'll talk more about IEP rights and dispute resolution later this season. There's a third big difference I wanna mention.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:08:28]: IEPs are harder to get than 504s. The process for determining who is eligible for an IEP takes more time and it involves more steps. Students need to have a disability to qualify for either plan. But, to get an IEP, kids need to go through the school's comprehensive evaluation process. You can learn all about this process in season 1 of understood explains. Okay. So kids need to be evaluated by the school to get an IEP. By contrast, kids don't need to get evaluated by the school to get a 504.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:09:01]: This kind of plan is easier to get, but it's less likely to include specialized instruction. So, for example, let's look at students with ADHD. The main thing they'd need to qualify for a 504 is a diagnosis from their healthcare provider. But to qualify for an IEP, those same students would still need to go through the full evaluation process through their school. It's the same thing with dyslexia or depression or a hearing impairment or any type of disability. It's pretty quick to start getting accommodations and assistive technology through a 504. It takes longer to see if a child qualifies for an IEP. We're gonna talk more about this later this season, but for now, I wanna briefly mention the 2 eligibility requirements to qualify for an IEP.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:09:43]: The evaluation team has to determine that you have a disability and that the disability impacts your education enough to need specially designed instruction. Okay. That's a lot of info. Let's summarize quickly before we move on. 504 plans are meant to remove barriers in general education classrooms. IEPs provide specialized instruction. They take longer to get, but they come with more supports, including legal protections and annual goals. Can my child have an IEP and a 504 plan at the same time? Yes.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:10:22]: It's technically possible to have both an IEP and a 504 plan, but it's unlikely your child would actually need both. That's because an IEP can include everything that's in a 504 plan and more. For example, if your child has speech impairment and ADHD, the IEP can include speech therapy as well as accommodations related to the ADHD, like reducing distractions in the classroom and helping your child get started on tasks. There are, however, some situations where it might make sense to have both kinds of plans. For example, if a child has an IEP and gets a temporary injury like a broken hand and needs some writing accommodations until it heals, Rather than going through the hassle of adding and removing those accommodations from an IEP, the school might choose to add them via a 504 plan. Another example when a school might use both an IEP and a 504 plan is if the student has a medical condition that doesn't directly impact academics, like a peanut allergy. So there are some special cases where both plans might be okay, but, in general, if your child has an IUP, keep it to that single plan. It's easier for you and for teachers to manage just one plan instead of 2.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:11:37]: Should my child switch from an IEP to a 504? So this happens a lot, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe your child has made a lot of progress and no longer needs specialized instruction. For example, let's say your child has dyslexia and their reading skills have improved, and now all they need are tools or accommodations. This can include extra time on tests and digital textbooks that can highlight the text as it's being read out loud. Both of those supports could be covered in a 504. But if you think your child still needs specialized instruction, you can advocate to keep the IEP. We'll get into more specifics about this later in the season, but for now, I'll just put a link in the show notes to Understood's article on what to do if the school wants to reduce or remove your child's IEP services. The other thing I want to mention is that it's possible to move from a 504 plan to an IEP, but your child will need to be evaluated by the school and it takes longer to qualify for an IEP.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:12:35]: We have a whole episode coming up about deciding who qualifies for an IEP. There are 2 really important things that multilingual families need to know about IEPs IEPs and 504s. 1st, getting your child an IEP or 504 plan does not put you or your family members at any greater risk of immigration enforcement. It's completely understandable that families with mixed immigration status might have concerns about getting formal supports at school, especially if it involves filling out paperwork with personal information. But all students in the United States have a right to a free, appropriate public education, no matter their immigration status. Plus, schools are considered sensitive locations, which means immigration enforcement cannot take place there. I'm going to talk more about this in a later episode that is all about multilingual learners, but for now, the one thing I want to mention is that formal supports in school, whether they're part of an IEP or a 504, should happen in addition to being taught English as an additional language. It's not an either or situation.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:13:45]: You don't have to choose between disability support and language instruction. If your child needs both, your child can and should get both. All right. That's all for this episode. But before we go, let's wrap up with some key takeaways. 504 plans are covered by a civil rights law that bans discrimination against people with disabilities. 504s remove barriers to general education. IEPs are covered by special education law and provide specially designed instruction and services for kids with a qualifying disability.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:14:24]: Both plans can provide accommodations and assistive technology. And last but not least, specialized instruction is a core feature of IEPs, but it's not very common in 504 plans. That's it for this episode of Understood Explains. Tune in for the next episode on IEP myths. You've been listening to Understood Explains IEPs. This season was developed in partnership with Unidos US, which is the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. If you want to learn more about the topics we cover today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode.

Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA [00:15:11]: Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently, discover their potential, and thrive. Learn more at under understood.org/mission.

Penny Williams [00:15:33]: That was an episode of the podcast, Understood Explains, To listen to more episodes of Understood Explains, search for Understood Explains in your favorite podcast app. That's Understood Explains. I'll see everyone on the next episode. Take good care.

Thanks for joining me!

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