IEPs and 504 Plans: Navigating the Education Maze

Children with disabilities are generally eligible for either an Individualized Educational Program or a Section 504 plan. The laws governing these plans have similarities, but many differences. Whichever type of plan is being used for your child, or for which your child is being considered, it is very important fro parents to be as prepared as possible before the planned meeting. Here is a guideline to help you through the process: 

Review the meeting notice!

Knowing the purpose of the meeting will help you prepare for the meeting. The notice should list the people that have been invited, the purpose of the meeting, the time and date and where the meeting will be held. The meeting notice should arrive 10 days before your meeting. The meeting is supposed to be scheduled at a mutually convenient time. It is often helpful to bring outside clinicians, if they have information relevant to your child’s needs and functioning. It is also helpful to bring your spouse, a friend, family member, or someone else knowledgeable about your child who can help you. This person should be prepared to provide you with support and to take comprehensive notes.

Gather information.

The more information you have before the meeting, the more effective you will be. Gather information from private providers. Review comments written on report cards, progress reports and notes from the teacher. Check your child’s homework to see how they are doing and any documentation of behavior you have. Don’t forget to talk to your child! Check what is available at the school and at other schools in the school district, particularly for children in the coming grade, so you are more informed about the options that are potentially available for your child.

Request drafts from your school district.

Many school districts will give you a draft of new evaluation reports, proposed goals and objectives, behavior plans, etc. before the meeting. These drafts can give you time to speak to your private therapist, request more information, compare goals with the previous years, etc. A district is not required to give you a draft, but it does not hurt to ask. You can also meet informally with key teachers, case managers, or related service providers before the meeting to brainstorm and share ideas or concerns that you have.

Review the current IEP or 504 Plan.

Your current IEP or 504 Plan can be used as a blueprint to help you prepare. Look closely at the goals and objectives. There should be at least one goal written for each of your child’s needs. The goals and objectives should be relevant, realistic and measurable. Which goals and objectives has he/she mastered? Which ones should be rewritten or carried over to next year? Take a close look at your child’s services. How many minutes of services is your child receiving? Are they direct services? Consultation? Individual or group? Take time to review the entire IEP including modifications and accommodations, placement options, transportation and ESY (summer) services. Come to the meeting with a list of things that you would like to have continued and/or changed or added in the IEP or 504 Plan.


It is easier than ever to investigate options, programs and even support services for your child. Look closely at the school web site, review the parent handbook, and talk to others. Many times, schools have reading teachers, writing labs, after-school tutoring, and other services that might benefit your child, but that you may not be aware of or be informed of by the school.

Getting the right label.

Some schools may only consider students for particular types of programming, services or placements if the child has a particular disability label or level of severity. Don’t be afraid to ask what each label means, and how that label impacts your child. Under IDEA, the label triggers eligibility for special education, but is not supposed to determine or limit the services your child is entitled to. Section 504 eligibility is based on having any physical or mental impairment and does not even use a specific labeling process.

Don’t reinvent the wheel!

If the child didn’t respond to stickers for good behavior in the last two years, he probably won’t next year. At the same time, sometimes schools discontinue services that are needed and working. Don’t let what works for your child get lost as your child moves up a grade level. Use the IEP or 504 Plan to document what has worked and not worked this past year.

Most good plans go undocumented.

Whether you’re writing a behavior plan or a plan to increase a child’s reading scores, all plans must have criteria for measuring success. Besides criteria for success, we need to determine what information needs to be gathered, how often it will be collected and who will be responsible. Set consistent dates to review your child’s progress and make changes if needed.

Independence is the name of the game.

No matter what the child’s disability, we want our children to be successful. You also need to know what assistance will work best. Classroom and individual aides sometimes are vague about how they provide support to the child and IEP progress reports can be very general and unclear. Remember, at all times, the most important consideration is providing your child the help they need to function as independently as possible when they leave school. Make sure you clarify any information you do not understand. You have the right to participate fully in the meeting and have all your questions answered.

Accommodations and Modifications.

Make sure that accommodations and modifications don’t limit, or take the place or your child learning a skill. If your child’s classroom work is modified, grades are modified, or requirements for graduation are modified, make sure you know what that means and where your child is functioning on all levels. Also, find out the consequences of such modification in relation to the diploma and other post-graduate issues.

 If it’s not written down, it likely won’t happen.

There is always a lot of information that is shared and discussed at an IEP or 504 Plan meeting. Don’t assume that everything was written into your child’s plan. When you get home, review the plan and call the school if changes need to be made.

 Keep all records.

Make sure you get a copy of all your child’s records. You can put in a written request for all of your child’s records to the district superintendent. Keep all reports, school records, letters and any important communication, including e-mails. They may be helpful later in solving a problem or if a disagreement occurs.

If needed, get help.

Before getting into an argument with your school district, gather as much information as possible. Your goal is always to solve the problem. If your child sees a private therapist or has been evaluated by an independent third party, they may be able to help. You can also receive assistance from a local advocacy group, parent training and information center, advocacy organization, or obtain legal advice. Parents always have the right to disagree, and if all else fails, you have the right to request an impartial due process hearing.

This information was prepared by Matt Cohen and Annmarie Robinson of Monahan and Cohen, attorneys at law. It is prepared for educational purposes and should not be construed as legal advice. For additional information or legal consultation, please contact Matt Cohen at 312-961-4179 or or visit

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