Back to school means new clothes and supplies for most parents. But, for parents of children with special needs, it also means reviewing and renewing their child’s 504 or IEP plans before the school year starts.

Both 504 and IEP plans were created to help provide children with learning disabilities or special needs the extra help they needed in school to be successful. In the beginning, before these plans existed, parents had no recourse to get their kids extra help from the school system. Modifications like sitting closer to the teacher’s desk or having an aide or a visual calendar were very difficult to request.

By law, children with special needs or disabilities may receive either a 504 or an IEP. Which one your child will qualify for depends on the severity of your child’s disability.

Briefly, a 504 is offered for children who have a disability that “significantly impacts a major life function.” An IEP is for children who have a disability that meets the criteria set forth under the Department of Education. It also must significantly impact their educational performance and require specialized services.

Generally, an IEP Is much more difficult to get than a 504. Both of my children have ADHD and have had a 504 plan since their early elementary school years. This plan allowed them to sit closer to the teacher and gave them the opportunity to take tests in quiet areas to minimize distractions. It also allowed for more regular meetings with the teacher and a homework journal that made it possible to keep track of their status on assignments.

A friend of mine had a son with autism who had an IEP plan. This plan allowed him to take special classes for certain subjects and it made it possible for him to have an aide to help him in mainstream classes.

If you’re wondering whether or not you need a 504 or an IEP for your child, your first step is to speak to your pediatrician. Once you have an official diagnosis, you will need to speak to the school to find out the next steps in your area. We had to have a meeting with the teachers, superintendent, and school psychologist. We also had to provide paperwork and testing results for the final determination.

The process isn’t easy and it can take time to work through for the first year. But, it really can make all the difference when it comes to your child’s success in school.

Learn more about the differences in this article.