As a special educator, part of my job is to ensure children with autism can access school activities and lessons in a way that is meaningful for them. This is different than creating individualized instructional plans and programs, because it involves taking something that already exists and adjusting it in some way – rather than creating something brand new. And, this way of specialized teaching applies to social-emotional learning, too.
There are two main ways of altering educational material and methods to accomplish this goal: accommodations and modifications. The line between these two things often becomes blurry for parents, and the truth is that it can be blurry in practice for educators and other school professionals as well. But it is important to understand the distinction between the two, as well as what they each entail, in order to ask for and utilize them successfully.
In this article, we’ll define accommodations and modifications in a way that is easy to understand and remember. We’ll also give some common examples of accommodations and modifications in an educational setting, and discuss ways to advocate for them appropriately.
Why Do Accommodations and Modifications Matter?
To understand why accommodations and modifications matter, it’s first important to understand the context in which they are typically used. In K-12 educational settings, a tiered or circular approach is often used to gradually increase supports and individualization for students who need extra or specialized support at school. This may be referred to as Response to Intervention (RTI) or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).
This means that all students are provided with a robust, high quality educational environment – including the physical space, the curriculum, and the teaching staff – as their foundation for learning. That’s the first tier. Then, at the second tier, students who need some extra support for specific academic or social and behavioral needs can access that as naturalistically as possible in their classroom or in small groups. This is where accommodations and modifications are applied most frequently. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful and even critical in the third tier as well. The third tier is highly supported, individualized education services tailored to the intensive needs of the child.
What Are Modifications?
It will be easier to understand what accommodations are if we first explain modifications. Modifications are what they sound like: changes to an existing lesson, in order to make it more accessible. For example, a modification for a sheet of math problems could be to shorten the amount of problems assigned, or highlight only the ones relevant to the facts the student currently knows by heart. Text could be modified by making the font larger or increasing the space between words. Visual guides might help the student to focus on what they are reading, such as a ruler used under each line of text as it is read to ease efforts to visually track and block out excess visual stimulation or distractions on the page.
Modifications can be relatively easy to implement “on the fly.” This means that a teacher might notice a student is struggling with an assignment in the moment, and make an adjustment right then – even if they didn’t pre-plan to modify the assignment. In this type of situation the teacher is looking to ensure the student accesses the content without having to complete every single practice opportunity, or to assess their mastery of a concept without completing every test item. The teacher will use their educational judgment to note whether the student can move on at pace with the rest of the class with continuing modifications, or if they will need additional time with the material to master it.
Remember, modifications take what is already there and adjust it based on the student’s unique needs or tolerance and endurance – but the content itself remains the same.
What Are Accommodations?
Accommodations, on the other hand, take what is already there and tackle it in a different way. The assignment is replaced with a different assignment altogether. Accommodations are particularly useful when the student is working within the same learning environment as their peers, and with the same subject matter to a certain extent, but have a different learning style. For example, a nonverbal student learning about community helpers alongside their peers who are doing an activity to verbally identify pictures of police officers, firefighters, and other community helpers during a class meeting might do a picture-to-picture or word-to-picture matching activity instead of verbally saying the answers.
Accommodations could also adjust the subject matter within an overall scope and sequence, to a certain extent. For example, a student who is working on single digit addition while the majority of the class is working on double digit addition could receive a worksheet with single digit addition problems during class work time, while still participating in the mathematics lesson at large with the rest of the class. The teacher could even plan ahead to include some single digit practice in the lecture or group practice section of the lesson, utilizing those as review for students who have already mastered the skill but as group instruction opportunities for the student who is currently working on that skill.
In my experience, accommodations are a lot harder to do “on the fly” than modifications. This is because they require some type of preplanning to identify what content the student is working on and what type of accommodation they will benefit from, as well as how to integrate it with what the class as a whole is doing on a daily basis in their lessons. Because of this, accommodations might be best applied when identified in advance and planned for unit by unit, instead of day by day. Then, the teacher can monitor the student’s response in the moment and make further adjustments from there as needed.
How to Ask for Accommodations and Modifications
If you think your child would benefit from more or different accommodations and modifications than what they are currently receiving in their educational environment, it’s still a good idea to start with inventorying their current menu. This is because when accommodations and modifications are being done well, they often blend into the background of what is happening on a daily basis at school.
A good way to start the conversation is to ask your child’s teacher something along the lines of: can you share with me what accommodations and modifications my child is currently benefiting from, both academically for each subject area, and also socially and behaviorally?
Once you’ve got an outline of what’s happening and what your child is responding to most successfully, you can craft your requests accordingly. For example, if your child’s teacher shares with you that during reading time your child gets more frequent breaks between work tasks so they can engage successfully with the material and not get too tired or bored, you might ask for a similar modification during less structured times of the day when they are struggling to maintain positive interactions with peers for the entirety of lunch, or the entirety of recess. Or, if you have concerns about your child’s ability to understand more abstract concepts like the structure of the U.S. government, you might ask for accommodated material addressing other beginning civics concepts like creating rules, reaching consensus, and following rules.
Finally, if your child has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), there is a specific section in which accommodations and modifications will be listed. However, these are often listed in boilerplate language, so they will need to be interpreted and applied with specific attention to your child’s needs and their learning contexts at school.
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.