*This article pertains to U.S. public schools. If your child attends private school or school outside of the U.S., talk to the school team to find out which accommodations they are able to provide.
Parents may not always know what accommodations or modifications are available to their child with special needs in school. This article provides that knowledge, along with tips and insight.
Students who are considered to have a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (e.g., autism, ADHD, intellectual disability, emotional disability, learning disability), or students who have a condition diagnosed by a doctor, that impacts their ability to perform to their fullest potential in school, are generally offered accommodations and/or modifications in the school setting through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan.
See below for more about what these terms mean. Whether or not your child meets criteria for a disability under IDEA is generally determined by an evaluation completed by a school psychologist. Sometimes other professionals such as a speech/language clinician or hearing specialist perform evaluations in school as well.
Related Article: How Do You Know if Your Child Needs an IEP at School?
The purpose of the accommodations and modifications is to provide the student with what he/she needs to be most successful in school. It is a way to “level the playing field” with peers by removing any barriers to learning that could be caused by the disability. Just like a student who is visually impaired would receive books written in braille or books on tape so they could learn the material, students with other kinds of disabilities or conditions benefit from accommodations and modifications as well. While accommodations give the student an alternative or more effective way of learning the material, a modification is a reduction in the amount of material or a change to the material itself.
Here are some more examples:
Accommodation: A student has a learning disability in reading so his teachers read math word problems aloud to him. This allows him to fully focus on the math problem, without any confusion that could emerge from his reading difficulties.
Modification: A student is given 10 math problems for homework, although the rest of the class received 20. This might be the case for a student with a math disability who takes a considerably long time to solve each problem and gets extremely frustrated during homework.
There are many reasons why a child might benefit from modifications or accommodations such as difficulty focusing, difficulty sitting still, anxiety or depression, learning difficulties, etc.; however, in each case, the specific difficulties need to be related to the disability the child has.
What is a 504 Plan?
Section 504, part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibits discrimination based upon disability. According to Section 504 the needs of students with disabilities must be met as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities. If your child has a medical diagnosis of a physical or mental condition or disability, but does not meet criteria or show a need for special education, he/she may be eligible for a 504 plan. The disability must “substantially limit one or more major life activity such as: learning, speaking, listening, reading, writing, concentrating, caring for oneself, etc.,” in order to be eligible for a 504 plan.
The 504 plan, created from input from the parents, teacher(s), school records, and sometimes the student, outlines specific accommodations your child is entitled to to meet his/her needs so she can perform to the best of her ability. In order to be eligible for a 504 plan, there needs to be evidence at school (e.g., consistent social, academic, or behavioral difficulties) demonstrating that your child is not performing on par with her peers due to her disability.
What is an IEP?
IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. When your child receives an evaluation by a school psychologist and is determined to have a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (e.g., ADHD, autism, intellectual disability, learning disability, emotional disturbance, speech language impairment, visual impairment, hearing impairment, traumatic brain injury), and the school team determines that your child needs special education services to meet his /her academic, behavioral, and/or social-emotional needs, an IEP is created for your child.
The IEP consists of information such as current performance; specific academic, behavioral, or social-emotional goals; the level/intensity of services your child will receive; the accommodations/modifications, the level of participation in state and district-wide tests, how progress will be measured; and transition services (for students 14 and older) such as what the student’s goals/plans are for after high school.
If you are unsure if your child needs an IEP, 504 plan, or meets criteria for a disability under IDEA arrange a meeting with your child’s school team (teacher, administrator, guidance counselor etc.) to determine what steps need to be taken to ensure your child’s needs are being met.
For more information on addressing your child’s needs with the school team see the article: Academic or Behavior Problems in School: Info for Parents
If you are wondering what kinds of accommodations/modifications are available to students with disabilities, here is a list to help you out. Not every child with a disability needs every accommodation/modification.
Accommodations/modifications are decided based on the individual needs of the child and how he is directly affected by his disability. You are a critical member of your child’s school team. Having knowledge about accommodations and modifications allows you to be an informed advocate at your child’s school meetings. Because every child is a unique individual, your child may benefit from an accommodation that is not included in this list.
21 School Accommodations Available to Your Child with Special Needs
1. Movement Breaks
Movement breaks are often helpful for children who have trouble sitting still. A movement break could include but is not limited to the following: going to get a drink, taking a walk in the hall, standing up and stretching at desk, passing out materials, running an errand to the office. Movement can also be incorporated into learning activities. See 10 Fun Activities to Teach Your Child Letter Sounds for ideas to incorporate movement into learning.
2. Mental Breaks
Mental breaks are often helpful for students who have trouble applying consistent effort for a considerable amount of time. The student may become considerably frustrated, anxious or lose focus without a break. The purpose of the break is to allow the student to return to work in a more productive state. Breaks could include a preferred activity (e.g., drawing, helping a younger class, resting at seat) or a movement activity like the ones mentioned above.
3. Allow Child to Stand at Desk or Move in Seat As Needed
May be helpful for children who have trouble staying seated or sitting still for long periods of time.
4. Extended Time for Tests, Projects, Assignments and Quizzes
Helpful for students with disabilities who have test anxiety, trouble organizing the steps in a project, difficulty working quickly, difficulty remaining focused on a task, etc.
5. Have Test Questions or Other Written Material Read Aloud By a Teacher/Staff Member
Helpful for students with a reading, vision, or intellectual disability, or students who have trouble focusing while reading.
6. Use of Calculator
Helpful for students with disabilities in math calculations. This could be an appropriate accommodation for a student who understands how to solve word problems but gets bogged down with the calculations piece (in my experience, schools have different policies in regards to offering this accommodation).
7. Allow Student to Revise Written Work Based on Teacher Feedback Before Giving a Final Grade
Helpful for students with a writing disability, or students whose writing is effected due to focusing as it relates to their disability.
8. Access to the Guidance Counselor Whenever Needed
Helpful for students with emotional disabilities (known as emotional disturbance in the school setting). Student may be suffering from severe anxiety or depression and it interferes with work production. You might think all students should have this access but most students are only allowed to see the guidance counselor on a limited basis. If your child has an accommodation to see the guidance counselor as needed, visits cannot be limited.
9. Use of a Scribe
A scribe is someone who writes for a student. The student tells the scribe what to write. Helpful for students with fine motor needs (trouble holding a pencil, trouble writing legibly, etc.). In my personal experience, some schools may not offer this accommodation, so talk to your school team.
10. Copy of Class Notes or Guided Notes (students fill in the blanks rather than writing all notes)
Helpful for students who have trouble focusing on the lesson while taking notes at the same time or for students who have trouble remembering information from a lesson.
11. Give Student the Opportunity to Type Assignments that Would Otherwise Be Written
Helpful for students who have trouble holding a pencil, writing legibly, etc. Similar to the reasons for utilizing a scribe.
12. Take Test in Alternate Location in Building
Helpful for students who have trouble focusing in a large setting or students who may need questions/directions read aloud.
13. Modification of Assignment
Student is given fewer number of problems or asked to complete a smaller amount of work. Another example is giving a student a multiple choice test with only three options to choose from whereas most other students have to choose from four choices.
Helpful for students who get overwhelmed or confused with the typical assignment. A student who struggles to write may be asked to write two paragraphs instead of five. A student who gets overwhelmed during math may get 10 problems instead of 20 for homework.
14. Chunking Work
This is where an assignment is broken down into mini assignments and the student is asked to complete each portion one at a time. For example, if there are 20 questions, the student would be asked to complete five questions (take a break, show the teacher, have the work checked, etc.) and then move on to the next five. Another example could be a long test broken up into portions over a specified number of days.
Helpful for students who benefit from comprehension checks before moving forward, or who have trouble applying sustained effort without losing focus or becoming overwhelmed or frustrated.
15. Reducing the Reading Level of Material
Here is an example: Let’s say an 8th grade student is reading on a fourth grade level and has a reading disability. His science teacher is giving a lesson on astronomy. For this modification, the student would be allowed to read a fourth grade level book on the subject rather than having to read the 8th grade level material.
16. Audio Books
A student with a reading disability or other disability that makes traditional reading difficult, would be allowed to listen to an audio version of a book or read along with an audio version to help him/her better understand the information.
17. Preferential Seating
Seating student close to the point of instruction, away from distracting items or objects such as the door, window, pencil sharpener, etc. Helpful for students who can become easily distracted by noise and movement.
18. Pre-conferences (meeting with the student to discuss thoughts and ideas before a writing assignment, or to discuss elements of an upcoming reading assignment) and Graphic Organizers to Enhance Writing Skills and Reading Comprehension-See How to Use Graphic Organizers to Improve Academic Skills for More on this Topic.
19. Teacher Check-Ins During Independent Work Assignments
Helpful for students who have trouble or get lost working independently for prolonged periods.
20. Use of a Timer or Visual Timer
This can be helpful for students who need to know when an activity will end due to anxiety about the length of an activity e.g., not knowing how long it will last) or because they need preparation for transitions (changes in activities that are about to occur).
Related Article: 3 Ways to Use Timers to Encourage Homework and Chore Completion
21. Incorporate Visuals and Interactive/Hands-On Experiences into Verbal Lessons/Lectures
Helpful for students who are more visual/hands-on learners than verbal learners.
As I said in the beginning, because every child is a unique individual, your child may benefit from an accommodation that is not included in this list.
If you think of any accommodations that you would like to add to this list, please comment below. Please share this article with others to spread awareness about accommodations and modifications that can support children in schools.
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers.