Reasonable accommodation.  Differentiation of instruction.  These are principles on which my school/place of employment thrives.  With low student-to-teacher ratios, teachers are able to get to know each student individually, and make adjustments according to his or her personal needs. 

In spite of this, I am aware of a fine line between being reasonably accommodating and being overtly permissive, and I believe it’s a complicated dance the teachers are doing. 

In a school with as few as 4 kids in a class, teachers can allow kids the freedom to work in an environment that supports their needs.  During a recent writing block, some kids cozied up in a sunny window seat; others splayed out on pillows on the floor.  Yet others chose to stay at the table, or to find a desk away from the main group.  With few students, there is the space and the opportunity, not to mention the open attitude of the teacher.  Ironically, this building was once a Catholic girls’ school, where I have no doubt that strict uniform compliance and straight-backed students seated at rows of identical desks were commonplace. 

When teaching kids with learning differences, teachers at my school have to develop ways within their curricula not only to target the reading and writing difficulties; they also have to find ways to foster positive experiences in learning, and promote successful expression of students’ knowledge.  They have to apply different methods for teaching as well as assessing.  While vocabulary continues to be an area of weakness in many children with learning disabilities, teachers teach and test this skill in different ways.  Instead of requiring rehearsal and regurgitation of a memorized definition, which the student may or may not actually understand (“Relentless: steady and persistent.  Relentless: steady and persistent.”), teachers allow students to act out words in games of charades, think of examples drawing on life experiences, draw pictures showing the meaning, and create multi-media collages using photographs of the actual students.  (“Torrent” showed a student crouching under an umbrella while a storm of collaged National Geographic lightning bolts threatened to split him asunder.)  It’s not just a way of accommodating students whose reading, writing, spelling, and oral expressive skills need some work; it’s better pedagogy.  It’s a way of getting kids to use their new vocab., to help them relate it to their lives, and to hope it sticks more effectively than “relentless: steady and persistent,” which I memorized in 8th grade, but didn’t really understand.  It’s also way more fun for kids and teachers.

Another bit of awesomeness I have witnesses revolves around certain students who are more “active” than others.  Is there a kid alive today with a learning disability who is not also automatically assumed to have ADD or ADHD?  Somehow or another, “auditory processing disorders,” which may look like “he’s just not listening,” have been labeled “ADD”.  More intriguing, in spite of actual ADD, these kids often get sent to speech therapy to get “fixed” because they’re “not listening”.  Is it a speech disorder or not?

Until the linguistic-medical-psycho-educational community differentiates that one, behaviors that look like ADD will be rampant in this school.  Thankfully, teachers here understand ADD, as well as auditory processing difficulties, and they don’t just yell at the daydreamer gazing longingly out the window, or punish the wiggly 12 year old who’s expected to sit in a stiff chair for 7 hours a day.  They get it, and they create solutions.

At a recent conference, a student’s math teacher expressed to the parent that the boy often looks like he’s shutting down, as his math class is at the end of the day and he’s been working hard on focusing all day long.  Since she knew he was into his Rip Stik, would mom send it into school with him?  So she did.  Sure enough, later that week, at 2:30pm, as I worked with another child in an adjacent room, I heard a faint roaring outside my open door, and looked up to see the student cruising down an empty hallway, recharging his batteries, so to speak.  He later reflected, “Ms. B. said she needed to see me in the hall, and I thought I was in trouble, but then she said to ride my Rip Stik down the hall and back.”  Guess who stayed focused until the end of the day?

A clever teacher, finding a way to single a student out, not for punishment, not for special treatment, but to meet his needs in a way that was neither disruptive nor unreasonable.  A successful accommodation.

Other adaptations are, in my view, less successful.  When a teacher tells the students they may sit anywhere they like, there’s usually one who makes a sprint for the teacher’s desk.  I’m all for accommodation and providing a supportive work environment, but I’m also for boundaries, and I dislike when kids seem to overtly push them.  There are always kids who will take advantage of a laissez-faire teacher: asking to use the bathroom 27 times an hour; telling a teacher their hair hurts so they can slack off of school work; making up excuses for not doing homework.  Again, in a small class, discipline can afford to be a little less strict, but there’s a fine line between laid-back teacher, and a run-over teacher.

As in most good ideas, when pushed too far, there are accommodations gone bad – good ideas, or necessary adjustments that don’t work as well as imagined. 

If Kid A gets to chew gum during class because his OT says it helps him focus, why can’t the rest of the class?  If Kid B needs a snack at 10:30am because he’s hypoglycemic (or just plain hungry), what qualifies as a snack?  Does it have to be a quiet food?  A healthful food?  Can it be a crinkly bag of Sunchips?  How many items make up a snack?  Is a breakfast burrito a snack?  If a kid prefers to eat her lunch at 9:00am, and then has no food at lunchtime, is the school obligated to provide a back-up?  One child I sometimes work with eats his way through his day. He’s still short and skinny, so I won’t make any growth spurt excuses.  He can consume, during one 45-minute period, right before lunch, 3 “Fruit by the Foot” snacks, 2 packs of “Gushers,” a bag of chips, pretzels, a wrap, and several drinks (including lemonade and espresso-based beverages).  It makes me ill to watch, and, contrary to what has been said to allow this accommodation, I don’t think it helps him focus.  His hands are too busy unwrapping and stuffing his mouth to type or write or follow along on a worksheet, his wrappers end up all over the table or floor, and he’s constantly refreshing from a large shopping bag on the floor. It distracts me; I can’t imagine the other kids in his class see his food as just part of the scenery.  In this case, an accommodation which started out as reasonable has been taken too far, and at this point is probably feeding into some unhealthy obsessive behaviors, not to mention the sheer quantity of calories and junk in his body. 

My wish for the education community at large is that teachers like those I work with are able to infiltrate larger, public schools, and bring the same open-minded approach to accommodate to the larger community of learners.  I know it’s a difficult task.  I understand how most classrooms cannot create private writing cubbies/window seats/bean-bag chairs for each of their 25 or 30 kids.  There simply isn’t the space.  I also understand the inherent difficulties in making special rules for each student so that no one is getting any more special treatment than the next, and in maintaining attitudes of fairness in the classroom.  In the adult world, we are expected to take care of our own needs.  Some people are fine sitting for an entire transatlantic flight; others need to stretch their legs every hour.  We don’t ask the flight attendant’s permission to get up, or complain about our seatmate: “He has already used the bathroom 4 times on this flight; I think he’s faking so he can hit on the hot flight attendant.  It’s not fair!” 

But in a classroom, a teacher would have to work extra hard to make sure a kid gets a chance to move around more if he needs it, or to have a different chair than all the rest.  Clever teachers can do it.  They can find errands to send active children on; they can invent jobs involving heavy work for kids who need that kind of work.  If one child needs a snack, they can institute a structured snack time, for those who care to munch.  They can make adaptive pencil grips and scissors available for the whole class – are they really going to hurt a kid who doesn’t “need” that accommodation?  Rather, they may open the other children’s mind to seeing multiple ways of navigating the world.  More than scheming for stealthy introduction of accommodations for specific students, clever teachers make it a priority to promote acceptance of diversity.  While they might quietly provide extra time on an assignment for one student, they don’t try to hide the very fact that we all have different needs.  Not only is a zero-tolerance policy on teasing necessary, but a positive attitude can foster a better understanding of each child’s image of self.  Without promoting “special treatment,” they can still help each kid learn what is motivating to him, how he learns best, and what he can do to help himself.  They can provide acceptable choices within the structure of the assignment – draw a picture, illustrate a comic strip, or write a play – that play to different students’ needs and strengths. 

It is my sincere hope that teachers can begin to implement this sort of “specially designed instruction” for all students, to recognize and celebrate their differences.  They don’t have to wait for the IEP to mandate adjustments for the one child with an identified disability; they can make learning unique for each student in the room.