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A Guide to Testing Accommodations

Accommodations are a favorite topic of mine for a simple reason: Instead of focusing on strategies to "fix" kids or to make kids perform better, we are focusing on how the environment can be changed to integrate kids who think differently. The test and the testing environment can be disabling and needs to change to accommodate your child's individual differences. I love saying that, and your kids will love to hear it.

Accommodations are granted to students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It is often said that accommodations on tests for students with disabilities compromises academic integrity and is a form of cheating. That statement is a form of discrimination. Accommodating a learning disability is the moral equivalent of building a ramp for someone in a wheelchair; they both tear down environmental barriers and level the playing field.

Ultimately, I believe accommodation is not just a special education issue, but should be applied to all students. Education should reach every child as they are and accommodate all individual differences. In our standards and test-obsessed school systems, this right is being taken away from our kids. Regardless of the labels, I encourage you to pursue accommodations for your children.

With that said, accommodations are far from black and white, and parents are rarely given a guide to help them figure out which ones would work best for their child. The following principles will help you create an accommodations plan for your child. Also, be sure to read the list of concrete accommodations, which you can put in place right away.

Principle 1: Be Student-Centered
Not all accommodations will work for all students. Too often we hand kids a set of accommodations without really thinking about what they need as individuals. Ask your child what might work for her. It's okay if she doesn't have any ideas of her own. Give her some suggestions from the accommodation list and ask her which she thinks may be helpful.

Principle 2: Find Accommodations that Suit the Situation
It is equally important to realize that not all accommodations work in all classes. Different classes draw on different skills and each may need their own set of accommodations. So start new with each class, think it over, then settle on what accommodations will work.

Principle 3: Don't Jump the Gun
Kids are often given an accommodation that does not seem to work, so it is immediately discontinued. But the reality is, you won't know what accommodation will work in what situation until your child has the opportunity to try one out, fail at it, reevaluate it, and then try again. This process of trial-and-error is the only way to empower a student to discover what accommodations he needs.

Principle 4: Model Advocacy Skills
So much emphasis is placed on the idea that kids need to be their own advocates. But how can they learn the necessary skills? Well, it starts with them learning from your example. Many parents are made to feel ashamed when they try to fight for their kids, but don't be intimidated. You have every right to advocate for your child. Share with your child how it feels to talk with teachers, and let her know what's on your mind. Model good advocacy skills by making your anger constructive, and work to form a partnership with your child's teachers. Most importantly, always talk about your child not in terms of deficits and disorders, but in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

Principle 5: Create Opportunities for Self-Advocacy
The final goal is for your child to be able to ask for accommodations himself. However, self-advocates are not created overnight. It is unreasonable to throw a kid into a classroom and expect him to march up to a teacher he doesn't know and ask for accommodations. Instead, try to create opportunities for successful self-advocacy. For example, work with a teacher who you know is understanding about accommodations, set up accommodations with this teacher in advance, and then have your child ask the teacher for accommodations or have a conversation about his accommodation. Creating these safe opportunities will give your child the skills and confidence he needs to go into more difficult situations as a positive self-advocate.

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