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The Accommodations Curse

When we first meet with students and families, we go over academic progress, look at transcripts, and talk subjectively about how the student feels about school. We often hear of difficulty in a particular class. Or we hear that a student hasn’t had enough time to finish a test. Or that turning in homework is an issue. And this sparks the question, which we ask gently, “Have you received accommodations for any of these issues?” We reassure students and families that, for us, there is no judgment. We simply want to make sure the student is getting whatever help he needs. All too often a student tells us that, yes, she has a 504. Or a parent jumps in to tell us about an IEP. And then comes the kicker. We ask if the student is using the accommodations, and he frequently tells us “no.”

This is the sad truth about the 504/IEP process. Kids are tested academically and psychologically. They visit doctors who provide diagnoses. Teachers, administrators and school psychologists as well as parents and educational advocates gather together to approve a plan (IEP or 504) that will address a child’s needs. And then… nothing.

Of course this is not always the case. But for high school kids who are in the most highly charged emotional phase of their lives, having to ask for something that sets them apart feels like a request to be ostracized.

And it’s not just the kid’s reticence. In high school – where students spend a limited amount of time with each teacher and class sizes continue to grow -- the accommodations can slip through the cracks. Sometimes teachers have no idea that an IEP or 504 is in place. One parent described a high school back to school night in which she visited with each of her child’s teachers. She brought up her child’s IEP to each and found that none of them were aware of it. This was a case where the student had emotional rather than learning issues. But her needs were just as crucial.

A less understandable problem is that some teachers manage to make the process difficult for students. They may embarrass the kid, or be inconsistent about things like extra time or a quiet setting for a test. Even if this is not true, kids perceive that it is--so it may as well be true.

We certainly don’t want to generalize, but the issue comes up too often for us to ignore. What’s important here is to figure out how to put accommodations in place once they’re approved. In the standardized testing world, very specific actions are taken regarding extra time and test locations. (More about the scandal in a moment.) But in classrooms, on a day to day basis, the lines are blurred.

We suggest that when an IEP or 504 is approved, teachers are notified and given specifics about how to enact the plans. If teachers sense that the plan isn’t working, they should let the IEP group know and ask for alternatives rather than letting the issue pass.

Then there’s the kids. Many kids are present in their IEP meetings and hear about the accommodations. But the setting is too intimidating for a kid to weigh in or object. It’s our job as parents and school administrators to teach our kids to advocate for themselves. As painful as this may be for some, it’s a skill that will continue to be essential for them throughout college and beyond. In our practice we give kids an assignment with a hard deadline such as, “Make an appointment to speak to your math teacher after school and discuss the best way for you to make use of your accommodations.” Putting this in writing and giving it a deadline makes it less up for grabs and more concrete. We tie it to future success in college and career. This is preferable to parents intervening and sometimes it actually works.

About the recent scandal. We are silver-lining kinds of counselors, so we feel that some good can come out of the spotlight being put on accommodations. Yes, they can be misused. But for most kids who are approved for accommodations, the need is real. We hope that bringing the topic front and center will help all the stakeholders rethink the process. And maybe those who need the support will actually get it.

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