My son needs significant accommodations in his learning. Does this give an unfair advantage? What about the other children who do not receive accommodations?
As my son completed the neuropsychological evaluation, the doctor pulled me aside.
“It’s difficult for us to get a full picture of his attention issues. He has learning accommodations in place that make things easy for him, but don’t work in the context of this test.”
I took a deep breath. Then I took another deep breath and a sip of coffee. Then I replied.
“The accommodations we have in place do not make learning easy for him. They make learning possible for him. I assure you, he is one of the hardest working kids I have ever seen.”
She waved me off. “You know what I mean. He is receiving so much help. The learning accommodations you have in place are a little unfair to the rest of the children who have to do all the work. And our test is based on him being held to that same standard so we can measure the deficits.”
I took another sip of coffee.
She continued, “My concern is that he clearly has ADHD, but the educational portion of the testing will not reflect it.”
I took a final sip of coffee and smiled. My interpretation? What we are doing is working for my son.
In my experience, it is a common misconception that accommodated and/or modified learning for children with learning differences is somehow giving them an unfair advantage over other children.
Or worse, that it is taking it easy on a child.
Or even still worse, that it is enabling and spoiling a child.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
My conversation with the doctor that day was eye-opening for me. (Please know, I re-tell it here to the best of my recollection. The words may not be exact, and I am pretty sure I was not as eloquent in my responses, but the overall flow and messages are true to what happened.)
One of the reasons why we homeschool is to provide an individualized education. This individualization includes many accommodations and modifications, based on my children’s learning differences. These are necessary in order for my children to make as much educational progress as possible.
But are these learning accommodations unfair?
What Is The Difference Between an Accommodation and a Modification?
An accommodation changes the way a child learns a particular topic, whereas a modification changes the actual material being taught.
Typical Classroom Accommodations Include:
- Listen to audio recordings instead of reading text
- Learn content from audiobooks, movies, videos and digital media instead of reading print versions
- Have a designated reader
- Record a lesson, instead of taking notes
- Have another student share class notes with him
- Be given a written list of instructions
- Dictate answers to a scribe
- Use a calculator or table of “math facts”
- Work or take a test in a different setting, such as a quiet room with few distractions
- Use sensory tools such as an exercise band that can be looped around a chair’s legs
- Take frequent breaks
- Take more time to complete a project or test
Typical Classroom Modifications Include:
- Complete fewer or different homework problems
- Writing shorter papers
- Answer fewer or different test questions
- Create alternate projects or assignments
- Learning different material (such as continuing to work on Chapter One while classmates move on to Chapter 2)
- Being excused from particular projects
Sample Learning Accommodations
The learning accommodations (and modifications) for my son are not as formal as the list above. Quite frankly, we just do what works best and allows him to progress. This includes:
- Completing school work outside, and often while moving
- Using more advanced science and history books, but reading everything to him and acting as a scribe for projects and tests
- Allowing a calculator for all math except skills drills
- Giving him more time for any learning material (For example, because reading is a struggle for him, it took us two years to complete All About Reading Level One)
- Incorporating hands-on projects with almost every topic
- Greater emphasis on and instruction in planning, organization and life skills
Do Learning Accommodations Give An Unfair Advantage?
As my children get older, I am encountering more and more questions and concerns about their learning accommodations. The conversation I describe above is not uncommon.
The perception is that learning accommodations are either making it easy for my children and therefore giving them an unfair advantage, or that the real world requires my children to “toughen up” and that accommodations are essentially enabling poor performance.
Both are far from the day to day reality of learning with accommodations. My youngest son struggles to read even the most basic text, over and over again, day in and day out. My oldest cannot hold a pencil or hear it scratch against the paper without significant sensory overwhelm and anxiety.
There is nothing easy or fair about learning for my children.
I love this quote by Thomas Jefferson.
Nothing is so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.
If we are comparing typically developing children to children with learning differences, there is already an inequality and essentially, an unfairness. The accommodations and modifications exist to level the playing field, not to favor a child. Equity is not about all conditions being the same; it is about providing supports that allow equal access to learning.
For example, studies have shown that when given extended time on tests, the grades of students without learning differences are not improved beyond what they achieve with normal time. However, an extended time significantly enhanced the grades of students with learning differences necessitating this accommodation.
Whether in a public school setting or homeschooling, the goal is to break down disadvantages and create learning environments that allow students to maximize their educational potential.
I often think back to what the doctor said.
“My concern is that he clearly has ADHD, but the educational portion of the testing will not reflect it.”
The accommodations in my son’s learning made his attention issues non-issues when it came to the educational portion of the test.
What more could we possibly ask for?