“Schoooool”s out for summer! Schooool’s out for-“ record scratch* Wait what? Summer break is over? When? How? Why? Ugh. Okay. I guess it’s time to pack up the swimsuits and dig out the school clothes. What do you mean they don’t fit? We JUST bought them! Ugh. Fine. Let’s go get clothes that fit. You’re so needy.
If you’re a parent or a school employee there is a solid chance you have recently had a variation of this conversation recently. You are not alone. Summer was over in a blink. We are two weeks into school and the van still smells like bug spray and sunscreen and an undefinable but certainly rotten food smell. I really, really need to clean out my van. Kids are gross. Anyway, since my kids have been out of normal routine and we are trying desperately to readjust to what we call “school normal,” I’m finding myself thinking more and more about the need for accommodations for my kids. I know, you’re probably wondering why my adopted kids should get different treatment than other kids. The truth for some children, it isn’t really the adopted part that needs as much accommodation but the side effects of foster care and some residual trauma from adoption feelings of abandonment that make for a perfect storm of a struggling kid. For instance:
My oldest kids were 8 and 9 when we first met. They had never been to school. They couldn’t write their name, say their ABCs, and had absolutely no context for a classroom setting. They were dropped smack dab into a completely foreign environment with no idea what to do. It is of no surprise to me (now) that my 8 year old (who was very tiny for his age) would find small places to crawl into and hide. He was so completely overwhelmed that he didn’t know what else to do. He hadn’t found his voice yet to say what was wrong and I didn’t have the knowledge I do now to ask for help for him.
Thankfully, I’m a quick learner and after a month of struggling, we asked for an evaluation and eventually a 504 and IEP plan. The trouble was, I didn’t really know what to ask for. I don’t think I’m all alone in that. I also think that overworked, understaffed school districts will not offer anything that will cause them extra work unless they are made to. It’s not their fault. They just might not have the margin to stretch further. Thankfully I had a seasoned foster mom on my side to help me advocate for my people.
Also, there are accommodations and there are modifications. Accommodations hold the student to the same standard as students their age. Modifications, however, change the level of work expected. For example, a modification could be assigning second-grade math to a 7th grader because he is deficient in math and needs to build a foundation. The lesson plan has been modified to accommodate the student. A modification for my boys was putting them in school as close to their learning level as possible. Since they had never been in a classroom, they were at a serious disadvantage from the second- and third-graders they should have been placed with. They were placed in first and second grade with massive modifications. They used kinder and Pre-K worksheets for the first few months until those things were absorbed. Now, in 9th grade, my one son will sometimes be assigned a 5th-grade type assignment because the expectation of a 9th grader was too high for some subjects. He can perform at or above the level for some subjects, but far below for others.
Thankfully, one of my son’s teachers took great interest in helping him succeed and added many of these accommodations for all of her kids. She changed seating, had morning snacks, offered tests read aloud and other things for all of the children so my kid didn’t feel singled out.
Here are some of the accommodations I learned to ask for. This is in no way an exhaustive list. You know your kid. He or she may need no special accommodations or he or she may need many more than I am even aware exist.
This means seating close to the board, closer to the teacher, in a quiet place in the room, or whatever you need it to mean. Some kids will only focus if they are right next to the teacher. Some will only focus if they can hide behind the cubbies and wear noise-cancelling headphones. You know your child. Ask for the seating that will help him or her the best.
This was tremendous for us when the kids would take advantage of it. The book The Connected Child by Karen Purvis and Dr. Cross outlined that kids who experience hardships should be offered food and water every two hours. Because of scheduling, that wasn’t possible for our kids until we asked for it. We provided string cheese and water for our kids in the nurse’s office so they could get a small break mid-morning and go back to class more focused and refreshed. Lunch would carry them over to after-school snack time. It was a game-changer when the kids didn’t feel self-conscious about it and would use the accommodation.
Some kids do really well sitting on a bouncy ball. Others like rocker stools, seats with a bungee wrapped around the base so they can bounce their feet or a standing desks. You know your kid. It’s possible they will goof off with a yoga ball and not focus at all. However, my littles love rocking chairs. They focus so much better when their bodies can move a little.
Extra Time on Assignments and Tests
Trauma of any kind, emotional or physical, causes changes to the prefrontal cortex. Things like time management become very difficult for kids who struggle in these ways. Offering a longer time to take a test or get an assignment turned in can help them to be successful.
Tests and Assignments Read Aloud
For my boys who struggled greatly with reading, this was absolutely necessary for a while. They were taken to a quiet room and had the assignments read and they could answer out loud instead of on paper. They performed so much better. They often knew the answers, but couldn’t convey that in writing.
This is an extreme request that may be turned down without a real need. It costs the district money because they have to pay an employee that will only work with a few kids in the school. It often doesn’t seem worth it to them unless the child is low-functioning. Your code words are “least restrictive environment.” You don’t want your kid relegated to the life skills room if they don’t need it. It is the law that a child is included in the least restrictive environment if at all possible. A paraprofessional makes that possible. He or she will shadow your child and do the reading out loud, explaining, assisting, and more that they need. They are your kid’s person while in school. I have both been this person for other students and seen my kid benefit from this person. Sometimes the school can’t provide full-time one-on-one assistance, but will have one in the classroom to float to kids who are struggling.
Audiobooks Instead of Text for Reading Assignments.
I personally absorb so much more of a story if I listen to it while I’m doing a chore than I do if I sit down and read. Part of this has to do with the fact that my kids will interrupt me while I’m reading, but won’t while I’m doing chores. (I think they’re afraid I will ask them to help.) The same can be said for many kids. It’s not so much about being an “auditory” learner but more that some people struggle reading long sections of text.
A Written List of Instructions
Okay, I am a person that needs to write things down. If I don’t, it is like the thing never existed. I will forget my meds if I don’t set an alert in my phone to take them in the morning. It’s difficult to say the least. I recognize this. Since that is the case for me, a supposedly functioning adult person, I can’t imagine how much more important it could be for a kiddo who is struggling. Having a clear list of expectations for the day can mean the difference between something getting done and something getting forgotten entirely.
I understand how this could seem like a ridiculous request. However, when there are times to do group assignments and the room is loud, the lights hum, the classroom next door is singing, someone is typing tapppy-tappy-tap, and there is music playing, it can be way too much for some kids. I have been known to simply put my earbuds in and not play anything on them just to dampen the noise around me.
This could be a distraction for some kids. However, a squeeze ball, stretchy band, bubble popper, or fidget cube can mean the difference between focus and la la land for a kid or an adult.
Less Homework or No Homework At All
For some kids, once the torture of school is over for the day, any reminder of it can send them into a tailspin. Maybe they’ve been holding it together and being “good” all day. Sitting for five more minutes to do math facts may cause them to explode. I know this is true for some of my kiddos. Some of them actually love homework because school is their happy place. However, one of them will completely shut down if I utter the word “assignment” at the wrong time.
Alarms or Timers to Finish Assignments
Some people cannot make their brains focus unless there is a concrete deadline. Their brains need the sense of panic to focus. I am, incidentally, one of those people. I can’t complete things unless they need to be done right now. I thrived on assignments during college because it was the busiest time of my life. I had three jobs and was in school full time. I also managed to train for a half marathon. I don’t even know that person today but the need for slight panic to urge me to complete a task remains intact. Too bad the running didn’t.
Anyway, a timer is especially helpful for kids who need regular reminders for transitions. There are some kids who will stress out beyond comprehension with this pressure and it will have the opposite effect. One of my girls freezes in place because she is certain she won’t be able to finish a task in time. It is so counterintuitive to me I just don’t understand at all, but it is how she is.
School days can be interminably long for some children. It is much too long for a child to sit and focus. Usually, there are recesses and breaks built into the day, but if there are not, ask for them. We call them brain breaks and they usually involve stretching, wiggling around, getting a drink of water, and getting wiggles out. If possible do this every half hour to hour depending on the kiddo and their needs. If it takes them too long to re-focus, consider a few longer breaks instead of multiple small ones.
As I said, there are lots of other accommodations or modifications that aren’t listed here. These are some of the ones that work best for my kids who struggle with executive dysfunction. However, your kid may struggle in a different way. Consider a psychological evaluation and a conversation with a therapist to ask for the correct accommodations for your kid. Your district may have a special needs advocate. They can further steer you in the correct direction. If you are an educator trying to help out your kids in class, many of these accommodations or modifications can easily be set in place for anyone who needs them with some planning.