The fact that one of my kids needs accommodations or modifications for homework and tests is still a hard concept for me. I was the Hermione Granger student. I sat in the front of the class. I did all the questions on every assignment. I got uber nervous–sick to my stomach sometimes–over getting tests back because I needed at least a 90% to feel good about myself. Not that I always got an “A” on everything. But if I didn’t, I felt like I had to do some major re-evaluations about my life.
And then I have J. J is a kid that needs all of the accommodations and modifications. Yes, before J, and even the first few years J was in preschool, I was the mom who was absolutely insistent that he sit still and pay attention and that he be held to the same standard to everyone else. And then I realized that was impossible to ask for because his brain and body don’t work that way. So J has been a very visible, very atypical student. He’s had things at his desk like a bouncy ball chair, or a bubbly disk cushion on his chair. He’s got a fidget spring and gets to take breaks whenever he gets frustrated or his work is just “too much.” He gets modified tests. J is not a Hermione Granger student.
I’ve been okay with the modification/adaptations/accommodations gig for a long time now. It’s just how learning happens for J. The thing I struggle with now is how to go about it. How do I communicate with a teacher (and since we’ve gone through middle school and are now in high school, it’s MANY teachers) about how J needs to learn and be tested. What complicates things even further is that J has different types of “learning disabilities” and “learning strengths” in every different subject. So there really is no silver bullet approach accommodation or modification we can use across the board. Sometimes I have a hard time pinning down “what’s wrong” in the learning process. It can be even harder when I’ve figured out a killer learning strategy at home and how that looks at school.
J had his first math quiz last week and it didn’t go so well. Steve and I knew this was going to happen, and we kind of needed it to happen. Because the only way we know where to start with modifications is to see where everything is going wrong. We haven’t gotten the quiz back, but as we prepare to think about modifications and accommodations, I’ve been trying to gather my observations/strategies/and past knowledge of J’s strengths and weaknesses, hoping that maybe I can find some tangible suggestions to discuss with his teacher–specifically for math.
- J has a short attention span: that’s one thing my mom noticed when she was here for a month. Giving J an entire page of math to do in one sitting is futile. Even when you sit beside him and make sure he’s doing it. After 5 questions, J’s mentally checked out, so the adult ends up trying to coax him through it, often just doing it for him. When I realized this, I literally started cutting practice sheets in half or quarters. And guess what? He actually learns (and remembers it) much better. He can actually do those 5 questions all on his own or with very little help. We give him a break and then 10 minutes later he does another 5 questions. It’s a great system at home. It doesn’t translate well at school. And what happens if you have a 25+ question test or quiz? What do you do with that?
- Organization problems: J cannot write small, line things up, or even write an equation in a straight line to save his life. I’ve made adaptive paper in the past to help with this visual organization issue, and that’s helped a ton. I’ve found that doing one equation on one note card helps a ton too. It limits the amount of space to use so it forces him to be more conservative in his number sizes. There’s lines to write on to keep those equation lines straight. It’s great too, because all he sees is one question at a time, so he doesn’t get overwhelmed seeing 25 questions to do on the page. But once again, how does that look like at school? We just can’t give his test in a succession of note cards.
- Word problems: Ugh. The sad thing is I totally relate to this because they make no sense to me either. But the difference between J and me is that I have reading comprehension skills and he doesn’t. When I realized that, I figured out how to teach him how to navigate those word problems. Words make pictures, right? (thanks Lindamood Bell!) and so you circle all the words you see and draw the picture for that word on top (the tricky words are than and from which we made down arrows for–which means start your translated equation here) and of (which is a set of parenthesis). Guess what? He got it! The problem is that system requires him to be able to write the pictures above the sentence and most worksheets don’t allow the space for that. So the question is, how do you accommodate that?
- Step by step instructions: When J is learning a new concept or there are a lot of steps involved, I always write on a note card the steps he needs to do. Our whole goal in math is to get him to do it on his own (because he can do it if you remind him what the steps are) but before he gets to that proficiency point, the step between adult intervention and independence is being able to follow directions on your own. When you have multiple types of questions on a homework sheet or test, how do you keep all the steps for each type of problem straight? with step by step instructions. So the question is (again) how does that look like at school?
- Calculator: J gets his adding and subtracting integers right 50% of the time, and that all depends if he’s having an “on” day or an “off” day. Getting the right integer sum or difference is essential to being able to do the next 4 steps correctly. Do you just let him use a calculator instead of having him to do it in his head (because every time he has to subtract integers, he has to figure it out on a separate sheet of paper). The Hermione Granger in me says, “No Way! He needs to just memorize and get better at it.” But that is a sticking point in doing the rest of the math (which he can get fairly quickly on his own). So what do you do about that.
I’m sure those of you reading this probably thinking, “That’s a heck of a lot of complicated craziness.” If this kid needs so much help learning, why is he even in this class, at school, etc? Unfortunately, I’ve gotten that vibe from some of J’s classroom teachers over the years too. There’s two main reasons–1) there is no class that would perfectly fit J’s needs. 2) when we’ve dropped J into a class that isn’t challenging enough for him, we get behavioural issues, which is worse than dealing with all of this accommodation drama. In fact, in one case J was placed in a reading class that involved super easy spelling assignments and he’d enter all the answers wrong on purpose because he thought it was hilarious to make the computer respond to the wrong answers. And then he got so riled up by it, we ended up being called to the school because his behaviour got so out of control.
But besides those two issues, I really believe that most kids (autism or not) can be taught how to learn. To whatever capacity they are capable. And J does learn it when all of the elements are working for him. When I see him do the math at home, I know he can do it at school. It’s just figuring out how to do it at school. All of this extra work gets J to use his brain in different ways and isn’t that a huge reason of our life experience as humans? Teaching a kid with autism can be so complicated but rewarding too–it’s just figuring out the how part.
New school year means new discussions with new teachers about all of these things. Wish us luck!