For many students who have disabilities, the accommodations that are provided through their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or Section 504 Accommodation Plan are extremely important to their school success. The accommodations are the things that are being done in a different way because of the impacts of the child’s disability. Accommodations could involve changes in the physical environment, school assignments, how the student participates in school activities, instructional materials, how much time a student is given to complete a test or assignment, additional supports, etc. The range of possible accommodations is mind-blowing, but they are selected based on the unique needs of each individual student.
Children should be told about their accommodations as soon as they are old enough to understand what they are and why they were chosen for them. Many parents are not comfortable talking to their child about his or her disability. They worry that it might negatively impact the child’s self-esteem. This concern suggests that the child is unaware that they have a disability. Even if the child does not know the name of a “condition” that they may have been diagnosed with, most kids are very aware of the things that they have trouble with. They know that it’s harder for them to write neatly, read, do math, remember things, see the board, walk fast, speak clearly, and so on. If they do have a diagnosis, learning that there’s a reason for why they struggle with certain things can come as a big relief. Even if there is no diagnosis or other explanation for why, it is generally helpful to have others at least acknowledge that things are difficult, and that it’s not their fault.
Talk to your child about how each accommodation is expected to help and how it should be implemented. Explain that sometimes a teacher or other school staff member might not be aware of the accommodations. Talk to him about how to handle situations where an accommodation is not provided. Discuss or role play what your child can do or say to let the adult know that he is supposed to have extra time, be moved into a separate room for a test, etc. Let your child know that it is also important for him to tell you when accommodations are not followed. You want to be able to address any problems as soon as possible.
Speaking with your child about her accommodations also gives her a chance to tell you about what is, and is not, working for her. It could be time to take another look at different ways that your child’s needs can be met, and maybe see if another accommodation would be more appropriate at this point. IEPs and 504 Plans are fluid documents and student input can sometimes make the difference between whether you have a document that looks good on paper, or one that actually works for your child.
Having these conversations, and preparing your child to handle “what if…” situations, can help your child learn how to effectively advocate for himself. That is an important life skill that he needs to start learning as early as possible.
Homework is a fact of life for most students from 1st grade to high school graduation. It is intended to be an opportunity to practice newly acquired skills, review what has already been learned, and apply or extend instruction beyond the classroom. If the homework is appropriate for a student, they should be able to complete their work with very limited assistance from their parents. Parents are expected to show an interest in their child’s education and monitor their homework as well as the class work and tests that are sent home. They should make sure that the child has a reasonably quiet workspace and needed school supplies. Many parents will find it necessary to either prompt their child to get started on their homework, or ask them if they have already done it. What they should not do is take over the assignment and end up doing most of the work themselves!
I will occasionally hear a parent use the word “we” in away that makes it quite clear that they are way too involved in their child’s schoolwork. “We studied for this test…”, “We do homework for __ hours every night”, “We don’t understand the assignment,” “We are taking Algebra I,” etc. I sometimes challenge the parent to think about whether their excessive involvement is actually against the child’s best interest. Here are a few things to consider:
- Helping too much may keep the child from learning how to function more independently. Ask yourself: Am I teaching my child that he must have the full attention of an adult at all times? Can my child learn to use a textbook, dictionary or computer to look something up, rather than just asking me question after question? Can my child read the directions for themselves instead of handing me the paper with the expectation that I will explain, demonstrate and/or guide them step-by-step through the entire assignment? Does my child even attempt to do work on their own, or have they completely accepted that they “can’t do it.”
- Helping too much may mask the actual challenges that the child is having. The teacher who sees correctly completed homework coming back to school everyday won’t know that you spend 3 hours each night re-teaching everything, or pretty much giving your child the answers to the questions. This keeps important information about the student’s learning from being available to guide instruction. It could also lead to educators concluding that the child is “doing fine” when you ask the school to provide extra assistance or evaluate the child for special education services.
- Helping too much may lead to unrealistic expectations. The student may end up being placed in classes that are too difficult for them when they could possibly be more independently successful in a class that moved at a slower pace or required a more manageable number of work products. The student may feel pressure to get all A’s and B’s when they are really just an average kid who would probably earn mostly C’s under normal circumstances. A student who has been “helped” all the way through school may set (or be pushed toward) unobtainable career goals, unless the parent plans to go to law or medical school with them. And then what? Instead, each child should get the message that, as long as he is doing his best, that he is good enough!
- By trying to protect your child from failure, you may also cheat her from experiencing her own success. It seems that some parents are afraid that their child will be traumatized by getting a low grade, turning in an unimpressive product, or having to tell a teacher that they had trouble with an assignment. They forget that some risk and struggle is often necessary for growth and the ability to overcome adversity. Making things appear to be okay is not the same as developing real competence.
There is much value and satisfaction gained when a person can say that their achievements, great and small, were truly the result of their own efforts!
My mother used to say that “Everyone has something that they are better at than anyone else in the whole wide world.” I don’t remember now exactly what situations would prompt her to burst forth with such words of encouragement. I’m sure that sometimes she was speaking to me when I was feeling sorry for myself because I felt that I wasn’t good enough at something that I had tried to do, or maybe was afraid to attempt. At other times, I’m sure that she was talking about my brother, Richard, who was thought to be “slow.” Richard, however, had an uncanny gift for electronics and figuring out how things worked. He would take things apart and put them together in creative ways. Once he rigged the lamp switch next to my bed to automatically turn on a CB radio when the light was turned on. That was interesting!
While my mother may have overstated the case, there was something to the point that she was trying to make. Each of us have been given a unique set of gifts and challenges. An important key to being successful in life, however we define “success”, is to figure out how to work around our challenges, and to also find our gifts.
For many children who have disabilities, the challenges become the constant focus of parents, other family members, teachers, clinicians, etc. Some kids are in school all day and then go to therapy and tutoring in the evening. Parents may coach, practice, review, and pre-teach on weekends and during the summer months. While it is important to help your child improve their functioning in areas of need, it is even more important that their disability does not define who they are. That child who struggles with reading could be a great dancer, athlete, artist, designer, cook, builder, actor, scientist, gardener, musician, equestrian, singer, craft-person, animal whisperer….. You get the idea.
Allow your child to have as wide a variety of experiences as possible,whether it’s as a spectator or participant. Follow up when your child shows signs of interest. Look for opportunities for them to learn more about an area of interest, take lessons to develop their skills, or participate in some way. Let your child dabble in several different areas. Their first interest may not become their true passion. You don’t want to miss the activity that reveals your child’s gift or lifts their spirit because you got stuck on the first thing that they expressed some interest in. Classes offered through your local Park and Recreation Department or the Y can be a relatively inexpensive way to sample a variety of offerings without investing a lot of money or making a long-term commitment. Other places offer introductory sessions and classes from time to time. Ask around and keep your eyes open for those and other opportunities.
Giving your child the chance to participate in an activity that he/she loves, or is good at, will enhance their self-esteem, sense of competence, and provide an important contrast to the challenges associated with the disability. The gift is there; your job is to help your child find it!