Federal laws provide for services and accommodations for students with disabilities in the United States. Understanding the differences between 504 and IEP plans can help you navigate the public education system for your child.
Two federal laws guarantee a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) and provide services or accommodations to eligible students with disabilities in the United States:
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (called Section 504), as amended
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (called IDEA)
Section 504 and IDEA are the laws that provide special education, other services, and appropriate accommodations for eligible children with disabilities in the United States. Individual states may also have laws governing these matters. When state laws and federal laws are different, schools must follow the federal laws, unless the state law provides the child with more rights or protection. These two federal laws also say that children with disabilities must be educated as much as possible with children who do not have disabilities.
But there are also differences between Section 504 and IDEA. Parents, health professionals, and teachers should know what each law provides so that they make the best choice for the child.
Which One is Right for My Child?
ADHD can affect learning and development from a very young age. Children with all three presentations of ADHD, predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive, and combined presentation, may face many challenges in school and may qualify for educational services and accommodations. Two laws in particular, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, are specifically designed to ensure that students with disabilities receive equal access to education and school activities. Both acts guarantee a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all children, regardless of ability.
Some children qualify for educational support under IDEA, others under Section 504, and sometimes both laws apply. The infographic below helps describe the differences between these two laws, how eligibility is determined for children with ADHD, and the types of support received under each.
Sample letter to request an educational evaluation of a child with ADHD
[INSERT NAME OF PRINCIPAL] [INSERT FULL NAME OF CHILD’S SCHOOL] [INSERT SCHOOL ADDRESS] [DATE]
Dear [(DR., MR., MRS. OR MS.) INSERT PRINCIPAL’S LAST NAME]:
I am writing to request that my child, [INSERT CHILD’S FULL NAME AND DATE OF BIRTH], be evaluated for special education services and/or accommodations granted under Section 504 or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). I am concerned that [INSERT CHILD’S NAME] is having difficulty and may need special help in order to learn.
For the last [NUMBER] years (his/her) classroom teachers have noted that (he/she) has difficulty completing assignments, is experiencing problems with excessive impulsivity and/or is unable to sit still and stay focused. Please note that [INSERT NAME AND CREDENTIALS OF HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL] has diagnosed my (son/daughter) as having Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). [INSERT NAME OF HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL] is concerned that [INSERT CHILD’S NAME]’s ADHD is resulting in decreased alertness in the classroom and may be significantly impacting (his/her) school performance, learning, and behavior.
I would like to meet with all those who will be doing the evaluation before my child is tested so that I may share information about [INSERT CHILD’S NAME] with them. I understand that the evaluation is provided at no cost to me. I also understand that I must provide written permission for these tests to be administered and I will be happy to do so once I have received all the appropriate forms and an explanation of the process. I will also expect a copy of the written report generated by each evaluator so that I may review them before the IEP or 504 planning meeting.
I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience so that we may begin preparations for the evaluation.
[INSERT YOUR NAME] [INSERT YOUR ADDRESS] [INSERT YOUR TELEPHONE NUMBER AND EMAIL ADDRESS]
- US Department of Education: The Office of Special Education Programs
- Education Rights for Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Primer for Parents (in English and Spanish)
- Protection and Advocacy Centers
- Know Your Rights under Section 504 from the U.S. Department of Education for parents and guardians of students with ADHD