A Teaching Assistant's Guide to Effective Classroom Accommodations
How can teaching assistants (TAs) create and implement accommodations for neurodivergent students — without isolating and stigmatizing them?
The Remfrey Educational Consulting teaching assistant training program, developed in cooperation with SENIA, emphasizes the importance of seamless and silent supports. Fostering self-awareness, offering controlled choices, and using a prompting ladder to gradually reduce support are fundamental strategies that give our students with special needs the support they need without being stigmatized and allow them to be truly included as part of the classroom community. But how is it possible for TAs to be seamless and silent supports when implementing accommodations?
Today, we're answering the most common questions about accommodations — what they are, what they are not, and best practices when incorporating them in the classroom.
Are Accommodations the Same as Modifications?
The terms "accommodation" and "modification" are often used interchangeably, but they have key differences that are important to understand. Accommodations are changes in how a student accesses information and demonstrates their learning. In other words, they adjust the process of learning. In contrast, modifications involve changes to what the student is expected to learn — the content and objectives.
To illustrate this, picture a 10th-grade English class studying Shakespeare. Students are assigned the task of interpreting one of his plays in their own words. Accommodations for this assignment might involve a student:
- Using a computer to type their paper instead of handwriting it
- Receiving more time to complete the assignment
- Working with a TA to create an outline before writing the paper
- Having a TA transcribe the student's spoken words into writing
These are all examples of accommodations because the core assignment remains unchanged; only the learning methods and presentation of information have been adjusted.
Modifications, however, would entail altering the assignment's content, objectives, or expectations. For instance, if a student has been evaluated and deemed unable to complete 10th-grade English coursework, a modification might involve creating a custom curriculum aligned with 7th-grade English standards. While still studying Shakespeare, the student might be given resources at their personal reading level, and assignments would be adjusted to align with the modified curriculum.
For our purposes, this blog focuses on accommodations. Although a TA's input is very important in developing modifications, that process involves a team of several educators working together. TAs will support students within the modified framework but typically aren't creating the modifications themselves. On the other hand, accommodations are very likely to fall under a TA's responsibilities.
What Are Some Examples of Practical Accommodation Strategies?
Accommodations will look different for each student and task, but here are some common, tried-and-true ways to help each learner achieve their goals and demonstrate their knowledge:
- Oral Testing: Allowing students to express their knowledge verbally rather than in written form, possibly in a separate quiet space to minimize distractions.
- Extra Time: Offering additional time for assignments and tests is particularly helpful for students with ADHD or difficulty initiating tasks.
- Alternative Testing Environments: Providing a quiet, distraction-free space for students who may find the regular classroom setting overwhelming during tests.
- Task Breakdown: Supporting students in breaking down complex assignments into manageable parts to enhance their executive functioning skills.
- Scribing: Offering assistance by writing down a student's verbalized thoughts or ideas when writing is a barrier to their expression.
- Highlighting: Identifying and emphasizing key information or instructions to help students focus and process critical details.
Whichever strategy is chosen, the core content and objectives must remain the same. Our capable but diverse learners must be able to access the same information and demonstrate what they know despite their differences. Furthermore, it is to everyone's benefit to shift our focus from those differences to all the wonderful strengths each student has and to use them as a foundation for accommodations.
How Can Accommodations Leverage a Student’s Strengths?
We often focus on students' struggles, but recognizing their strengths can be transformational. Consider a student like Andrew, who would often retreat under tables when feeling overwhelmed. While Andrew faced challenges such as emotional regulation, difficulty pronouncing words, and reading below grade level, I would have underestimated his potential if I had focused solely on those limitations.
Shifting the perspective to Andrew's strengths revealed that he was highly social, enjoyed peer interaction, had an excellent auditory memory, and expressed his understanding through drawing. Leveraging these strengths, we devised a plan that allowed him to participate effectively in social studies and science lessons.
One of the strategies we came up with was to pair him with another student, Etienne, who also learned better when listening to the text read aloud. Andrew and Etienne would sit next to each other wearing headphones and share a computer that would read the information out loud to them. Both of them enjoyed the companionship and interaction, and both benefited from receiving information in their preferred learning styles.
A second way to have Andrew listen to the text was to pair him with Giovanna, a student who learned better when reading aloud. I often heard Giovanna softly speaking words out loud whenever it was time to read and decided to use her self-developed strategy to help Andrew. By simply sitting next to each other, Giovanna could learn in a way that worked for her (reading aloud), and Andrew could hear and understand the text.
Both of these were win-win situations for all three students. Finding one small step that creates a suitable accommodation for multiple students is very effective and rewarding.
How Can Accommodations Mimic Classroom Norms?
One thing we avoided doing with Andrew was pairing him with the same student repeatedly. The other students changed partners frequently, so we knew Andrew should as well. This is one example of mimicking classroom norms, an approach that ensures students with accommodations feel integrated and not singled out. Additionally, TAs don't need to burn themselves out constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they can take what is already happening in the classroom and make one or two minor adjustments to make it work for their student.
Another important consideration regarding classroom norms is the age appropriateness of actions. For example, handholding might be common among younger students but not older ones; therefore, TAs should avoid holding hands with older students. Adapting to the social norms of the classroom fosters inclusivity, avoids stigmatization, and promotes acceptance.
With these accommodation strategies in place, there are two final ideas to keep in mind:
#1 Always adjust as needed
It's important to remember that accommodations are not a one-size-fits-all solution. An extremely successful accommodation for one student may not help another at all. Every student brings a distinctive set of strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences to the classroom. As educators, we must acknowledge this diversity and tailor our approach accordingly. By customizing accommodations to match individual needs, we ensure that each student is given the best possible chance to succeed.
#2 Independence is the goal
Education is a journey, and our ultimate destination as educators is to prepare students for a future where they can thrive independently. Gradually reducing support levels is a critical aspect of accommodation strategies. As students become more accustomed to their accommodations and more aware of their learning styles, we should aim to transition them towards independence and self-reliance. This doesn't mean abandoning support altogether; instead, it means equipping students with the skills and confidence they need to tackle challenges without constant assistance.
Accommodations in the classroom are a cornerstone of inclusive education, ensuring that all students, regardless of their unique learning styles and challenges, have equal opportunities to thrive. By keeping accommodations seamless, customized, and strengths-based, TAs can successfully support all students while working towards independence.
For more ideas on effective accommodations, or if you have questions, feel free to contact me.
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