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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Tsapakis

The Balance Between Expectations and Accommodations

I’ve never hidden the fact that mathematical thinking is not a strength of mine. My brain just does not compute numbers or visual spatial concepts in the same way that it does language and verbal reasoning. We moved quite a bit when I was growing up and my guess is I lacked the foundational knowledge required to build upon each new concept. I can still hear my teenage self yelling at my mother, “I’m never going to need to know or use any of this!” about Algebra and graphing things on my giant TI calculator. I would have been right - had I chosen a different career path ten years later.

While I was pursuing my Masters in Special Education, I was not permitted to student teach until I had passed a certain math test required by the Massachusetts Department of Education. Much to my dismay, this math test was filled with all of the concepts I had struggled with and virtually ignored during most of my 6 -12 schooling. I set up a meeting with my advisor and the dean of my program to try and convince them to let me begin my student teaching even though I hadn’t passed the math test yet. They didn’t budge and I still had to pass the test without any shortcuts. Eventually, after multiple preparation courses, hours upon hours of studying, practice tests, and tough love from my now husband, I passed and went on to earn my degree. To this day it remains one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done and one of my proudest achievements.

Oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about that test as it relates to my Wilson Reading students. The ability to read is a life skill and a necessity. There are some specially designed shortcuts for sure, but at the end of the day these kids just have to wade through it and acquire the skills needed for basic self-sufficiency. Think about all the things you do each day that require you to read with no access to accommodations: road signs, menus, food labels, text messages, emails on-the-go, receipts, airports... the list is endless!

For the person with dyslexia, structured reading programs such as Wilson Reading Systems can provide the skills and support needed to learn to read using research-backed methods. However, it does not “fix” the dyslexia, nor does the dyslexic person need to be fixed.

As we’ve discussed before, the person with dyslexia has other strengths and in fact, some of the most talented, noteworthy, and important contributors to society have been dyslexic. In the world of Special Education, so much time is spent trying to change how neurodivergent children behave or learn in order to get them to conform to what’s expected of them, but we must walk a fine line between what’s essential and what we can let go of in order to preserve their self-confidence and individuality.

It's important as parents and educators to continue to ask ourselves, what skill am I trying to work on, and what skill can we come back to at a different time? Is the goal that a child can write their name with the correct letters, or is it that they can write it with perfectly formed letters?

At one point in my career, I was the English special education support teacher for 8th grade in a town that was very culturally diverse and where many students were bilingual, with English as their secondary language. For much of the year, my students and I had to suffer through the general education English teacher bombarding us with paper-based comprehension questions after reading a book - and these were wonderful books like To Kill a Mockingbird and the memoir Night by Elie Weisel. These books had so much potential for so many learning styles yet there was no group work, no writing beyond preparation for standardized tests, no poetry, no art, no Reader’s Theater.

I spent so much time during academic support just helping my students understand the basic tenets of what was going on so that they could complete their classwork and pass the class based on this teacher's style, that we had no time to actually absorb, discuss, enjoy, or learn from the texts. They complained, they were bored, and we still had to complete these questions because that was the way this teacher had always done it. Yes, my crew of 12 students had various learning differences like dyslexia, auditory processing delays, and ADHD, but none of these differences negated the fact that these smart, talented and energetic children had to complete this necessary task.

There are certain skills that all students need to be able to do, and I’m not suggesting we lower standards or expect less.

We can have high expectations for our kids while simultaneously meeting them at a level that’s better suited for them. This allows them to experience success and feel motivated to keep going.

We can’t give up trying to help these students simply because the way they learn isn’t business as usual. All kids (and grownups for that matter) will undoubtedly encounter tasks in life that may take them more tries or force them to have to push through adversity with little to no shortcuts, but the reality is that as far as schooling goes, K-12 traditional programs are not “the real world."

For example, an accountant uses a calculator, so this is a reasonable accommodation for students. Many adults use speech-to-text when sending messages on their phone, so why can't we allow students to use this for writing assignments? Often times, the K-12 curriculum is more focused on doing something the hard way "just because," but we need to be mindful of realistic accommodations that professional adults use in their life and careers.

We owe it to these kids and ourselves to stop viewing their learning differences as something that needs to be changed.

As the parents and educators in their lives, we need to be the ones doing the heavy lifting. We are the ones responsible for finding the balance between accommodating and challenging. Striking this balance will allow them to develop the skills necessary to navigate an encounter like a solo trip through the airport, a test that must be passed in order to drive, or begin their career. We must help them develop the self-confidence and self-trust in their ability to persevere and achieve their own personal goals.

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