Re-Thinking Classroom Accommodations

As a teacher, I was given checklists at the beginning of every school year listing the accommodations I was required to provide students in my classes with learning disabilities. Over the years, I came to know those checklists well, and later, as a coordinator for students with accommodations, I got used to filling them out and distributing them to teachers. For the most part, the checklists looked almost the same for every student. Sure, there were differences here and there, but there were also standard accommodations that came up in the testing reports for every single child – things like, check for understanding of verbal instructions, and re-direct if student is off-task. 

I fully admit that as a classroom teacher, I was baffled by accommodations such as these. What good teacher wasn’t already re-directing off-task students and checking to be sure the kids understood instructions? And as a school counselor in charge of a student accommodations program, I would wonder if parents found such accommodations concerning – if something like ‘check for understanding of instructions’ had to be included on a legal document of accommodations, what did that mean for students in the class without such a document? For that reason, when I facilitated parent/teacher conferences for students with learning differences, I would actually point out that many of the accommodations on the list were things teachers provided all students – it just felt like something that needed to be said!

Over time, though, my perspective changed about such accommodations. Perhaps it was because I read through those checklists so many times in so many meetings that my thinking about them expanded as a natural consequence, but for whatever reason I began to view them not as tasks or strategies a teacher was required to implement for that child, but as a list of signs for the teacher to observe that indicated the student was struggling with his or her disability. In other words, the accommodation to re-direct an off-task student really means: Look. When this kid is off-task, it’s because she’s struggling with her ADHD, not because she’s being disrespectful, so please help her out and gently re-direct her.

I think when we view a list of accommodations as examples of how kids with learning differences struggle, we are more attentive to other signs and struggles that may not even be written down on paper. We’re also more open to inventing new strategies that work better for that particular child. It’s a paradigm shift, really, in how we perceive that checklist.

The document itself didn’t change as I moved into a small-group setting to work specifically with students who had learning disabilities, but my perception of it did, and it became more useful to me as a result. Instead of just a legal document of obligations, it was a guide map – a way to navigate the student’s struggles so he or she could move forward. Once the checklist became a document that could help me understand that child, instead of just a list of things I was supposed to do for them, I could help shape it into something better and more effective. It’s a shift in thinking and not so much a shift in behavior, but I think viewing accommodations this way increased my sensitivity to the roadblocks that get in a student’s way, and as a result, I was able to be more effective, and more compassionate, towards my students.

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