Most teachers – and many other non-educator youth workers – are quite familiar with IEPs, or Individual Education Plans. They are part and parcel of the school day for children with disabilities, laying out the specific program of support, services and special education needed to help them succeed. You might not be as familiar with 504 Plans, a similar kind of educational plan – but with one key difference.

“The main difference is that a 504 plan modifies a student's regular education program in a regular classroom setting,” explains Dr. Steven J. Bachrach, MD in KidsHealth.org. “A 504 plan is monitored by classroom teachers. A student with an IEP, as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004), may receive different educational services in a special or regular educational setting, depending on the student's need. IEP programs are delivered and monitored by additional school support staff.”

In other words, 504 plans (named after Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act) are designed to provide students with the accommodations they need within the regular classroom setting to help them learn at their highest potential.

As Dr. Bachrach explains, these accommodations might include:

  • Preferential seating

  • Extra time on tests or assignments

  • Reduced homework or in-class work

  • Behavior management support

  • More leniency with attendance, tardiness or missed assignments

  • Occupational and/or physical therapy

Who is Eligible for a 504?

According to Dr. Bachrach, a student qualifies for a 504 plan if they have impaired physical or mental abilities that make it challenging for them to:

  • walk, breathe, eat, or sleep

  • communicate, see, hear, or speak

  • read, concentrate, think, or learn

  • stand, bend, lift, or work

The qualifications for a 504 are broader than with IEPs (which require a child to display at least one of 13 specific disabilities), so they potentially cover a broader range of students. The idea behind the 504 is to help students stay within the regular classroom setting, while providing accommodations to make it easier for them to find success at school. It also provides important legal protections for the students from discriminatory practices within the school setting.

Mental illness and the 504 plan

Because the requirements cover both physical and mental impairments, students with mental health challenges are often eligible for a 504. And with an estimated one in five school-age children dealing with some type of mental illness, it’s likely that most classroom teachers will have at least one student who qualifies for this kind of support.

“Many children can also suffer from emotional reactions to the strain of learning issues, medical illness, family financial struggles, personal problems or other stressors,” writes Deborah Offner, Ph.D on the National Alliance for Mental Health website. “While not all mental health problems directly affect students’ academic or school functioning, many do, and schools can help.”

One of the most common mental health considerations that leads to a 504 is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Plan elements might include special behavioral support during field trips or school assemblies; assistive technology like noise-reducing headphones; and special seating to help block out visual distractions. A 504 plan may also be in place to help a child transition from a special education setting into a regular classroom setting, or when returning to school after a traumatic event, illness or injury.

What does a 504 plan look like in the classroom?

As a teacher, how will a child’s 504 plan impact your classroom? Of course, this will vary based on the type of impairment the child has, but you should be prepared for any of the following situations, as outlined by this article in Attitude:

Behavioral challenges: To manage impulsivity in the classroom, you may need to seat the child front and center, in full view of the teacher and away from distracting classmates.

Executive function deficits: If a child’s grades are suffering due to unfinished work, the 504 may stipulate extra time to complete assignments, or breaking assignments into smaller portions and assigning task deadlines along the way.

Improving focus: For a child with attention challenges, teachers might want to enlist the child’s help in presenting the lesson, or using trigger words like “this is important” or “one, two, three … eyes on me” to capture wandering attention.

Handling social challenges: Many children struggle with social clues, and a 504 could include strategies to help alleviate their anxiety around this. The student may be assigned special responsibilities or a leadership role, and teachers might use social-behavior goals and rewards.

The ultimate goal of a 504 plan is to help each child succeed to the best of their ability by making adjustments and accommodations in the classroom. Like IEPs, they are reviewed annually by a team that may include school support staff and parents, and adjusted accordingly. They are generally less formal than an IEP, although this of course depends on the severity of each child’s situation. And they serve as a helpful guide for teachers to provide specific strategies to help make the school day a more productive and supportive experience for every child.

Learn more:

For more information about 504s and how they differ from IEPs, please visit Understood.org and watch the video on this page.

Read more about 504 accommodations and modifications in this whitepaper from the WarmLine Family Resource Center.

Find good information about the civil rights protections afforded by Section 504 law at the U.S. Department of Education.