What’s the Difference Between a 504, an IEP, and a RTI

What’s the difference between a 504, an IEP, and a RTI? This is a basic question asked by almost every parent of a child with learning disabilities.

Many parents feel like they’re expected to request either a 504 or an IEP as soon as they notice learning problems, even though it often seems like a toss of the dice.  There are actually big differences between all three of these options, which can affect your child’s education, protection, and support.  Here’s what you need to know.

Federal laws and grants provide free access to services and support for your child’s learning if they qualify. And you don’t have to pay to have them tested.

It’s the law.

You might know what you want for your child, but we highly recommend reading this entire section.  It’s full of information that can help you. In addition, we recommend taking a look at this download from the National Center for Learning Disabilities about parent rights, and this 504/IEP comparison table from Understood.

What You Should Know About a 504 Plan

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973 to prohibit discrimination based on ability. It’s the civil rights law that was also responsible for making businesses install ramps so that individuals in wheelchairs can get into buildings.  Part of section 504 provides access to education for children with disabilities. In schools, a 504 plan makes sure that children with learning disabilities can participate in school without discrimination.

In order for your child to qualify for a 504, a student must have documentation from a doctor proving that they have a non-temporary physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activity.  This impairment can include reading, writing, concentrating, or more.

Although children still need to qualify for a 504, the definition is broader than an IEP and more children qualify for a 504. Often, if a child has ADHD or mild dyslexia, but doesn’t need an IEP, they will qualify for a 504 instead.

Typically, a 504 plan contains a list of accommodations that a teacher must either provide, or allow a student with a disability to use in the classroom. An accommodation alters the academic setting or environment in some way, but doesn’t change the content of required work.  The 504 accommodations remove obstacles that keep children from learning.

  • Language disorder accommodations may include listening to books on tape, instead of reading.
  • Writing disorder accommodations may include letting your child use a scribe (a person who writes things down), or a keyboard, instead of hand-writing everything.
  • Auditory processing disorder accommodations may include allowing a child to wear an FM device so that she can hear better.

When you list accommodations in a 504 plan, your child’s access to these accommodations is protected by law.

There is no limit to the number of accommodations that can be listed on a 504. It’s a good idea, though, to choose a list that is easy to understand, can be easily communicated to teachers, and enforced.  If you move from a 504 to an IEP, you can move your list of accommodations into the IEP.

A 504 plan can also include modifications, which allow a student to complete an assignment, but simplify or change the quantity or skill level of the work required. An example modification is fewer math or spelling questions, different questions, shorter writing assignments, and teacher-provided notes or study guides.

To get a 504 plan, a parent provides an evaluation to a 504 team, which includes the child’s teacher, a special education teacher, the school principal.  Although a parent’s involvement in this meeting isn’t guaranteed by law, you can ask to attend.  A 504 plan needs to be renewed every year.

For more information about accommodations and modifications, see our collection of accommodations here.

Who is Eligible for a 504?

If a child has a learning difference or disability but doesn’t need or qualify for special education services (an IEP), they might qualify for a 504.  Section 504 specifies that a child who is limited in major life activities, which include “seeing, hearing, learning, reading, writing, performing math calculations, and performing manual tasks,” is eligible for a 504.

Benefits of a 504

Accommodations are relatively simple for school districts to provide, and they cost nothing.  Because of this, and the broad requirements for qualifying, a 504 is far easier to qualify for than an IEP. Since the 504 accommodations are protected by law, you can follow up and complain if they are not followed. By listing your child’s accommodations (and perhaps writing a letter to the teacher at the start of a school year,) you can make it very clear what will help your child to succeed.

Some of the common ways in which children can benefit from a 504 include:

  • Reduced workload or number of problems means that a slower-working or different-learning child can focus on how to do the work, instead of trying to complete large numbers of problems.
  • Hearing, reading, and other input accommodations can mean the difference between understanding and becoming overwhelmed.
  • Processing speed accommodations, like extra time on tests and assignments, can mean the difference between doing well and flunking.
  • Memory aid accommodations can save your child frustrating years of trying to memorize math (for example), or even days of the week.
  • Output accommodations, like a scribe, a keyboard, or learning how to use dictation software can mean the difference between your child spending hours to write something incomprehensible, versus your child working to develop real writing skills and being able to focus on what is being taught.

Disadvantages of a 504

Unlike an IEP, section 504 doesn’t ensure that a child with a disability will receive any sort of individualized education. There are no educational goals associated with a 504, and rarely will teachers modify the content of a course with a 504.  Section 504 doesn’t require a teacher to teach things differently.

Many teachers use a 504 to require less work from children (for example, 3 spelling words instead of 15). Unfortunately, while this might lessen the homework burden, it doesn’t teach the child.

Some parents state that their child’s 504 was just used to “fail their child forward,” passing them to the next grade without learning what was necessary.

It is important to make sure that your child’s type of learning is supported by the teacher.  If your child is not able to learn in the classroom, it’s time to talk with the principal, and possibly request an IEP.

There is no standardized teacher training for dealing with 504 accommodations. Different teachers support a 504 differently, and parents sometimes have to work hard to make sure that their child’s 504 is followed. Some teachers refuse to follow a 504.


The IEP is a plan for a child’s entire experience within a school. It contains specific measurable goals, and is an important legal document that both protects and opens the door to educational, social, and behavioral support for disabilities. In order to qualify for an IEP, your child must be tested and diagnosed for a learning disability that is listed in the IDEA, as described in Chapter 6.

Understanding the IEP information can be overwhelming, since many IEP websites are full of complex information. The website Understood.org has worked hard to present IEP information in small chunks, starting here.  Their information includes a full Overview of an IEP.

If your child has been granted an IEP, you’ll want to touch base with the teacher at the start of the year, to make sure that he or she understands the IEP.  You’ll also want to pay attention throughout the school year, making sure that the IEP is followed.

Every IEP requires a yearly meeting of the school’s IEP team.  The basic team must include at least one regular education teacher, at least one special education teacher, a representative from the school district who has power to make decisions about your child’s education, and you.  The meeting might also include the special education director, the principal, and any experts you choose to invite.   The yearly meeting discusses whether or not goals were met from the previous year, whether your child will have an IEP this coming year, and what will be in the IEP.    If you have concerns, bring them to the meeting, together with examples.

Although this is only an overview of the IEP, there are a few things that should be repeated for parents, again and again:

You can call an IEP meeting at any time. 
If you don’t understand or are feeling rushed, you can always request another meeting.  This is provided for by law.

Don’t ever let anybody push you into signing something in an IEP meeting.
Just say that you need to “sleep on it” or you need to show the IEP to someone, so that you aren’t pressured into signing an IEP.  Then go home and really study it.

Who Is Eligible for an IEP?

Qualifying for the IEP requires two things.  First off, your child must be diagnosed with a condition that is covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).”  There are 13 disabilities listed in the IDEA. Most children with learning differences potentially qualify under the specific learning disability category.  Children with ADHD potentially qualify under a category called other health impairment.

IDEA defines specific learning disability as: “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.  The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.  The term does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”

Getting an IEP might seem straightforward, but in many school districts, especially for disorders like ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and auditory processing disorder, parents report that it’s very difficult to get an IEP. Many school districts tell parents that “you cannot get an IEP for dyslexia despite the fact that dyslexia is listed in the law!” The way to do it, say the parents who have gotten an IEP, is to throw yourself into it.  Read the law.  Read books about how to get an IEP. Talk to other parents.  And then do it, one foot after the other.

Many parents don’t even try to get an IEP because it sounds so complex.  So we’ve provided you a crystal-clear overview of the five steps in getting an IEP.  Each child and situation (and school district, and teacher, and set of problems) is unique. Yes, that’s true.  But the actual process of getting an IEP is straightforward, and there are a lot of protections built in.

Our overview post is taken from a description in Fine Until Kindergarten: A Parent’s First Guide to Learning Differences.  This book is written to give parents a full first view of what they  need to know and do to support their child.  It gives a good, simple overview to how the IEP can help, and the process you follow to get one.

After understanding the basic process, we recommend the book called From Emotions to Advocacy, by Pam Wright and Pete Wright. The website for that book is right here.

We suggest getting an overview first because getting an IEP is a legal process, and it can be overwhelming if you just step in.  If you understand your alternatives, and the why and how IEP’s and schools work the way that they do, it’s easier to pick your own pathway through all of the resources.

The Wrights have another website (more complex, but filled with resources) called Wrightslaw.com.

What Does an IEP Do?

An IEP is an individual plan that ensures curriculum in general classrooms is flexible enough to support your child’s learning, and provides services as needed. An IEP can also specify education outside of the general classroom.  An IEP is a legally binding document. It must include the following:

  • A statement on how your child is currently doing, and on how your child’s disability affects learning and life.
  • A list of your child’s annual educational goals, which can include behavioral and social goals
  • A description of the special education supports and services that the school will provide to help reach goals in the IEP, including when services will begin, how often, where, and how long they will last.
  • Descriptions of program and test modifications and classroom accommodations the school will provide,
  • If there was previously a 504, it can be included in the IEP.
  • Plans for measuring progress toward annual goals

If your child has an IEP, he may be eligible for support products purchased as part of the IEP.

Benefits of an IEP

An IEP is federally mandated and comes with full protection. Each IEP has specific, customized goals attached to it every year that target your child’s particular needs, and there are consequences if the goals are not met.

The IEP process is built around protecting and informing the parent. If a parent has problems or disagrees, there are clearly-defined ways to lodge a complaint and request change.

Disadvantages of an IEP

There’s no disadvantage to having an IEP, although many parents whose children have IEPs report having problems with how school districts interpret and support the IEP. District resources may be limited and problems may vary, depending on how willing educators are to create an effective, personalized learning environment.

How do I apply for an IEP

There’s no disadvantage to applying for an IEP. We explain how to do it in this post.

Response to Intervention (RTI)

In 2006, many states began to use a Response to Intervention (RTI) approach for children who are having academic trouble. The RTI was developed because the federal government wanted teachers to be able to flag children to get immediate (monitored) learning support, before being tested for LD. The federal government allows school districts to use up to 15% of their IDEA funding to pay for the RTI early intervention program. (In some states, it has different names and different rules.)

RTI offers an alternative to putting children who are having trouble in school through special-needs testing.  With the RTI program, teachers identify students who have problems, and then, while keeping them in the classroom, use different teaching techniques.  Teachers track patterns of strengths and weaknesses, to see if the new techniques work.  There are multiple tiers of intervention. If a child is involved in RTI and doesn’t improve, then eventually the school will test that child, but there is no guarantee when that will happen.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has a free book called Parent Rights in the Era of RTI. We really cannot recommend it enough.  The book talks about whether your child needs to fail before getting support (no), talks about what to monitor, and even points you to resources for different states.

Since the 1970’s, students identified with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) (this includes dyslexia) have increased 200%. Coincidentally, the RTI program has also reduced the number of children identified with SLD and allowed districts to hire fewer special-needs teachers.

Here’s more information about RTIs from the Understood website.

Benefits of RTI

Originally, RTI was defined as student-centered assessment models that use problem-solving and research-based methods. It’s a way for districts to provide interventions as soon as a need arises, without having to wait for the child to fail. And it was partially provided because school districts were labeling non-readers “dyslexic,” when they weren’t.

Some school districts use RTI in addition to other interventions, as a structured way to support learning. It can be very helpful to have a structured alternative program available to children who are having trouble. RTI allows schools to identify students with problems early, support them, and test theories for why the child is failing.

Even if your child is placed into RTI, if you feel that your child has a learning disability, you can still request testing for an IEP, by law.

Disadvantages of RTI

In contrast to an IEP plan, districts are not legally obligated to follow through on RTI suggestions or structure. An RTI is even less binding than a 504. Since there’s no legal guarantee that teachers will appropriately follow an RTI plan, stay vigilant if you agree to one.

Many parents of students with learning disabilities feel their children were delayed from getting special education testing and services they needed because they agreed to RTI.  Likewise, some school employees have said that they felt that RTI kept students from getting appropriate special education help. And some teachers have expressed frustration with RTI, saying it requires teachers without special education training to provide special education teaching.

An article published in Information Week in 2015, talks about how RTI is falling short of its promise.  The article, written by Sarah Sparks, cites a study with more than 20,000 students in 13 states.  In addition to other findings, the report discovered that students who were already in special education, or who were old for their grade, performed poorly when they received RTI.

Douglas Fuchs, a professor and chair of special education and human development at Vanderbilt University, says that “over time, in many places, what’s happened is RTI has been deliberately used as a kind of general education substitution for special education.”

Take-away? Parents suggest that if you feel your child really needs a special education support plan, don’t settle for an RTI.  Legally, you don’t have to go with RTI, and information from an RTI is not needed in order to test for learning differences.

Remember: you can write a letter asking for testing, even if you’ve already agreed to an RTI.

If your school district tries to make you send your child to RTI instead of getting tested, you can do the following;

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