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4 Things You Need to Know About Learning Accommodations That Will Help Your Students Thrive

When people outside the education sector picture a classroom, they may often imagine the traditional “sage on a stage” setup: a teacher lecturing to a room of students seated in neat rows, learning at the same level and pace. But in actuality, the reality looks much different. 

Students learn in many different ways, so educators must be able to teach students that represent a  broad spectrum of learning aptitudes and needs. A single classroom may include gifted students who need new challenges alongside  students with learning differences that require additional support. These may include students with dyslexia or auditory processing disorders, students who struggle with reading comprehension, or students learning English as a second language.

This is why learning accommodations are so important to educators and students in providing learning equity and increasing learning outcomes. 

Helping all students excel means identifying and addressing students’ unique learning needs and  applying the appropriate accommodations and support to create a more equitable experience.  And it works. For example, research from Northwestern College found that when special education teachers provided accommodations training for general education teachers and paraprofessionals, educational experiences and test scores improved for students with learning disabilities and special education needs. 

But I also know that ensuring this equitable learning experience can feel daunting — especially if you’re new to teaching or have a student with a learning difference you haven’t encountered before.

After more than 13 years in education, I get it.

Fortunately, there are also several things you can do to make things easier for yourself while also making an impact in the classroom. Here are a few critical lessons I learned in my teaching career about using learning accommodations. 

Learning Accommodations Aren’t As Intimidating As They Seem

There are three points to keep in mind about learning accommodations that can make them seem a little less overwhelming.

First, keep in mind that learning accommodations do not change the expectations for learning or the requirements of a task — they simply help to level the playing field by overcoming any specific barriers a student’s unique circumstances may present. It doesn’t have to be a whole new lesson in addition to the one you’re already using. For example, an accommodation may provide larger print or audio versions of materials to students with a visual impairment  or provide speech-to-text software to students with visual or reading comprehension challenges. What they do not do is change the material, standard, or expectation of learning. That stays the same.

Second  Don’t be worried about trying something new.  Sometimes, it feels strange or awkward - for you and the students, especially if it’s different from what you’ve normally used before. That’s normal. Just as you don’t expect perfection from the students  in your classroom, give yourself that same flexibility. Ask your students what’s working and not working for them, and be comfortable learning alongside them.

Third, remember that you are not alone. In the words of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “No single educator should be responsible for holding the expertise in the infinite presentations of learner variability.”  So one of the best ways to overcome any feelings of “I’m not sure this will work” is to seek out your campus-level specialists for insight, advice, and assistance. At the district, and often campus, levels, there are specialists with wide ranging areas of expertise and experience in working with students with varying learning needs and aptitudes. If you aren’t sure about approaching a specialist, remember  that they are  a resource for you, advocates for your students, and will likely be thrilled to help.

Collaboration with Other Teachers is Essential to Success

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a sheltered class of newcomer English learners, and I had no idea what to do. I was still learning how to teach, and suddenly I had a classroom full of students who spoke minimal English, and I didn’t speak Spanish. I had to simultaneously teach them the content of each science lesson and a whole new language. 

I had no idea what to do.

However, that experience helped me quickly recognize the value of collaboration. I spent my planning periods observing other teachers on my campus — especially veteran educators with several years of experience working with language learners, and I learned the power of utilizing supports that were ideal for these students. Over the years, I realized that new teachers aren’t the only ones who benefit from collaborating. Even as a seasoned educator, I could get isolated or overwhelmed, but when my teammates and I were able to work together and share  knowledge and new-found best practices, we all benefitted… and so did our kids.

This wasn’t just my experience, though — there’s research to back it up. A study published by the American Educational Research Journal that followed more than 9,000 teachers in Miami-Dade County public schools found those who engaged in quality collaboration had overall higher student achievement than those who did not.

When you’re in your classroom, it’s easy to feel like an island. Just remember that support is always within reach, and spending a few minutes in another teacher’s classroom (or asking another teacher to observe you) can help you gain the insight and confidence you need to overcome any challenges you may be facing when it comes to utilizing accommodations, supports and additional practices.

Technology Can Offer Additional Support (and Help You Save Time)

Technology has come a long way in the past couple of decades, and using the right tech makes it easier than ever to provide students with the custom learning accommodations students may need to be successful in class.

For example, translation software is an excellent support for English learners. According to renowned linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen in his book The Natural Approach: Language Acquisition in the Classroom, “Language acquisition occurs in only one way: by understanding messages.”

So, as a teacher, I didn’t mind when my students used translation software  to help them understand brand-new material in their first language. Once they grasped the concept, we worked together to ensure they could show their answers in English, helping them learn both the new content and English simultaneously.

Additionally, text-to-speech software is helpful for students with reading challenges, such as dyslexia, and it’s also beneficial for teachers who, in the past, would have had to read the content to the students or create their own recordings for students to use.

And visual dictionaries that allow students to click on a term and see it as a picture can benefit English learners, children with learning disabilities, or any student who may need more help understanding a concept. (This is particularly useful in science, where vocabulary is much more abstract.)

Best of all, because students can use these technologies independently, and because these features come embedded on platforms like Propello, you can deploy learning accommodations without building individual supports from scratch.

You Must Give Yourself Grace 

Finally, one of the most important lessons I learned with learning accommodations is that it doesn’t do any good to beat yourself up if something doesn’t work. (This is vital to remember when you embark on any new initiative.)

As a new teacher, if I attempted something that didn’t drive the outcome I wanted or expected, I sometimes felt like a failure. Eventually, I decided to take the advice I always gave my students: just keep trying.

Give yourself grace, stay open to trying new things, and tap into your support system of colleagues. With time and experience, you’ll find that leveraging learning accommodations becomes easier — and it’s rewarding to see the difference it makes for your students. There’s something special about seeing a student unlock their potential once they have the right supports, and then watching as they grow confidence in their abilities.

Above all, remember this: At the end of the day, so long as you’re doing your best and always striving to help your students succeed, you will make that  positive difference.