Developing Self-Advocacy Skills: Starting with Student’s Accommodations

Why is Self-Advocacy Important?

SELF-DETERMINATION is an area of Special Education that is not always readily understood.  Even with myself, I have been using the term since I heard about it and worked with it during my Masters of Special Ed program, but every couple years I have to go back and read up on it to crystalize my conception, and how it relates to Self-Advocacy.  Still yet, it is a huge part of my hidden curriculum for the students with special needs that I work with, and the things I directly teach the students in my resource classes from around grade 6 or 7 onward (at increasing levels of depth).

Picture that says "Self-determination is helping students take control of their lives
Advocating for their own accommodations, helping to create their own goals, and making life decisions with adult support.

This is why I really value the Accommodations Survey process that I do every year. This is a survey (or assessment) that I give to students in my pull-out/Resource class in August that asks questions about accommodations.  This serves as a pre-test, and then in January as a check-in, and then in June as a final assessment of what the students understand about accommodations in general, and their accommodations in particular.

By having this process it helps me as an educator, but it also shows the students how far they have come in taking ownership of their education and that gives them confidence to take more agency and direct their academic lives more.  This is because in my experiences they almost always have very little to no understanding about accommodations in general, and even less knowledge of exactly what they are allowed, and how to receive them.  But through helping them build this capacity during the day to day, and tracking it with this assessment, they can see themselves growing, and that inspires further self-advocacy.

In addition to my goal of helping students develop their conception of their accommodations and take ownership of them, I also like to empirically know that my efforts as a Learning Support or Resource teacher are effective.  That’s why the idea of this ongoing Accommodations Survey/Assessment came about.  I was the Department Head for Learning Support and English Language Learners at an international school in Ethiopia, and we were working under the PLC (Professional Learning Community) model.  And while working with other general education PLCs my main focus was the question of “What do we do when the learners don’t understand?”, as a PLC of Special Educators, the key question we had in our weekly meetings was “How do we know if the students on our caseload are gaining the skills we want them to have?” This is to say, we were looking at the first PLC question in a proactive way for our students, and not the question about what we do when they aren’t getting it.

Therefore in that vein I already had the hidden curriculum of building self-advocacy with my students, but I wanted to find a way to assess their growth in this area.  That’s when I built this survey, rubric, and spreadsheet to track growth.

We often have a feeling that we are helping our students grow, but don’t always have data to show this…

HOW TO DEVELOP SELF-ADVOCACY VIA ACCOMMODATIONS

For the sake of brevity I just wanted to outline this section real quick.  Here’s the process for doing the whole thing:

This is an image of the assessment I give in Google Form. It has the 5 questions
This is the Google Form version

August

Give the students the paper or Google Form with the Accommodations questions

Grade it with the rubric

         Put the information into their spreadsheet 

Add notes in the spreadsheet and consider how to bring that into your work with students (i.e. if students think accommodations are study skills).

This is an image of the spreadsheet I use to track the students accommodations assessment scores
Example of one students information in the spreadsheet

January:  Give the assessment again. 

As I go through the scores and add to spreadsheet I see areas where students haven’t grown, or still have misconceptions, I note down to talk with them and clear those up.

May:  Give the assessment one last time.

 Put it in the spreadsheet.

Have conferences with the students and show them the growth they made this year and urge them to keep taking ownership of their education and do their thing.

BUILDING THE CONCEPT OF ACCOMMODATIONS

The Accommodations Assessment process is only helpful if we are working towards building the student’s understanding of accommodations and help them learn how to navigate the whole process.  This is done in many ways throughout the year.

Review Accommodations and IEP Goals Early on

Early in the year we go over this ‘common accommodations’ presentation I put together real quick, and play the Bingo game (screenshot).  Then I go over each students Accommodations sheet, send them a copy (and CC the parents to remind them of the accomms) so the student can put in their Resource folder and reference it and even show teachers if needed.

Accommodations Unit

Along with the early review of accommodations I also have a series of units that I do at times with the students depending on the situation.  These units are under the umbrella of “Knowing the IEP” and are broken up into ‘Understanding Disabilities’, ‘Present Levels and Goals’, and ‘Accommodations’. From doing these activities the students really gain an understanding of the whole process, and as part of these units they will, at varying levels, review their previous IEP and psych report, help develop their current IEP, and conduct their IEP meetings.

Think Alouds and Modeling

The easiest way to work with accommodations is generally for the adults to make it happen, or at the easiest easiest level, the special educator to take care of it (i.e. less consultation with the general ed teacher or student; just knock it out).  I think that that may be why a lot of students don’t seem to really understand what accommodations are because they may have situations where a teacher just hands them a test with a modified format and tells them to take it in the Learning Support room.  That’s three accommodations right there, and the student may not understand that a) they just got an accommodation, and b) that they are entitled to these in all their classes, even if the teacher doesn’t provide it.

This is why I make a concerted effort to talk to the students and have scenarios like:

Me: You have the accommodation to have more white space on the tests. Your math teacher and I were talking about doing that on the test coming up. Do you think it would help you?

Student: I don’t know. Maybe

Me: For example we could have just one problem per page, or maybe two. That way you can have space to work

Student: Yeah, sometimes I run out of space when I’m working out a problem. I think that could help.

Then at other times we may have a discussion like that but about reduced number of citations for a research project, or extra time, and we will model the interaction about how they will ask the teacher.

Or I will help them draft the email….sometimes the students prefer to talk to the teacher in person, other times they are scared, so I suggest email.  Sometimes students say they will talk to the teacher in person and never do, so I strongly suggest email, and sometimes ask to be CC’d on it.

IEP Goals

Another way to help students with their understanding of, and growth in their accommodations, is by having IEP goals related to this at times.  It may sound like a bit much, but I have had situations like where when given as much time as a student needed on the MAP standardized progress test, they took 7 hours instead of the typical hour.

The testing coordinator was a little concerned, and we were also concerned that in a few years this could be a problem with other standardized tests like the SATs and the IB tests.  So we gathered a baseline (e.g. 700% extra time) and then came up with a set of strategies we would use during exams to help the student advance in this area, and set a goal of ultimately reaching 100% extra time (double time), which was the maximum we could ever hope to be allowed.

The strategies we used entailed things like:  prompting when day dreaming or retracing letters, having the student talk about the need for an eraser before erasing all the paragraphs he had written, at scheduled times looking at the test and the time remaining to make pacing plans, giving him praise when he was making growth in the goal, tracking the progress of this goal quarterly, and maybe one or two other strategies.

Progress Monitoring of Accommodations

One key way in which I help support the growth of student understanding of accommodations is by having a quarterly progress monitoring spreadsheet where they fill out progress not only on their goals, but also their accommodations.  Which ones they are using, how to ask for others, setting goals to use a given accommodation, etc.

A picture of the accommodations progress monitoring I use with the students
I fill out one of these rows for each accommodation and once a quarter we reflect…

So we go over the common accommodations and their individual accommodations early on in the year thus they have an okay idea about accomms, but the quarterly progress monitoring/reflections not only helps them with reflecting on them, but also getting a deeper understanding in ways like:

“I can use my computer when the teacher says it has to be written and it takes forever for me to write?” 

Or…. “My teacher said we couldn’t get extra time and I didn’t finish.  I can really get extra time?”

Or,  “What exactly is multiple testing sessions again?” 

“What is ‘Provide Tiered Instruction’?”

And then from there we discuss ways to ask for their accommodations as discussed in the other section here.

This system is also great for updating IEP accommodations.  Maybe in January we establish that they aren’t really using a given accommodation, and then in June I will ask the students if we should take them off the IEP, and then go from there.  I like having this ongoing process, with student input rather than some ways I’ve updated accommodations in the past.

How to Ask for Accommodations

Generally I suggest to the students to ask for a given accommodation at the time it’s needed, if that makes sense (i.e. they didn’t know they were going to run out of time on the test).  But if that’s not working, or it would be better to speak ahead in a given situation, I instruct them to plan ahead with teacher.  It’s always best if students give the teacher (and Learning Support teacher at times) time to think about any accommodations and plan for them.  Especially if there is a chance where the teacher may be reactive and make a decision that would have been better to have been discussed (i.e. “nobody gets to use their computer.  It must be written”).

If the student takes these approaches but has difficulty accessing their accommodations (i.e. teacher is resistant, it never comes to fruition, etc.) I tell them to let me know and I will low key ask the teacher.  The way I do it, and explain to the students, is that I will wait about a week, and then I will check in on some other students in the class and generally ask how things are going and take it from there to get to the underlying need.  It’s usually cool though.   As the years have gone by in my career, teachers are much more open to doing accommodations.  However the age old calculator on the math test can be a tough one still….

The Hidden Curriculum

Along with explicitly having these activities built into my resource class in order to help the students deepen their understanding of accommodation, and in effect increase their self-advocacy skills, I also have it in the “hidden curriculum” to further develop their understanding of their individual needs and the accommodations put in place to support them.

So instead of saying, “Hey are you going to take the test with me on Thursday?”

I say “Hey have you thought about which accommodations you are going to use for your test on Thursday?  Are you thinking of using the ‘Test in Alternative Setting’ accommodation?”

As I suggest to the students to request the accommodations to me or the classroom teacher when an exam is coming up, I take that time to prompt them to think about the assessment format and what kinds of accomms they get.  It might just be a quick exchange at the end of a small group session in the push-in math class, but I may mention that about the Social Studies test coming up.

By doing this I am helping them to solidify the concept of accommodations, and am putting the onus on them to consider it.  However, I am scaffolding this by reminding them of the test, that they have accommodations, and then we can role play how to ask for any accommodations they may need.  And the level of support on my end depends on where the student is in their development.

This is part of the hidden curriculum because I may be with them during that time period working on a reading intervention, but my goal during that time period are also things that aren’t in my lesson plan, like helping them build their capacity to work with their accommodations.

RESULTS

Survey Increase Accommodations
Example of increase between December and June

I wrote a series of notes (below) about the results from the first year I did this process.  Overall the students showed great growth throughout there year and I have continued to keep this hidden and not so hidden curriculum in full effect! 

Here are my notes:

Question 2: What are common accommodations that students can receive?

This was one question you were wishing so hard that some of these students would increase (and most if not all did)

Question 3: What are accommodations that YOU get?

Students went from general ideas of their accommodations to using percentages for extra time and areas like that!

General:

Some of the increases were truly exciting.  Students starting the unit, or year, saying things like, ‘I don’t have any accommodations’ to being able to list most or all a few months later!

Even cats that got like 20 out of 25 on the first go went up to, for example 24!

Next Steps: 

This is a critical area in the document because I can add next steps each time and follow up with students in class, in the push-in, during check-ins, etc.

An example is situations like where students haven’t increased, or they seem to have an erroneous idea about one of the questions. 

An example is one student listed more specificity about his accommodations (e.g. “Dictation Software”), but he still left some out like ‘extra time’ and ‘test in alternate location’ so I put a note to follow up with him and see if he was just having a day where he didn’t want to fill out a survey, or really didn’t remember the accommodations that he knew on the pre-test, but wasn’t listing on the same post-test.

CONCLUSION

This Accommodations Assessment process came about so we could show that our efforts were having an impact for developing self-advocacy skills for the students with special needs that we were working with.  But it quickly showed us, and the students, how far they had come with taking ownership of their education and thus ended up being a win-win endeavor.

It’s cool to see students go from little to no conception of accommodations and not doing any self-advocacy, to slowly getting to a point where they know their accommodations, know that teachers have to give them to them, and start to ask for them…even with good advanced notice at times!

I think one of the most gratifying experiences is to see how much higher cats rate themselves in the self-rating scale final question of how well they think they are receiving their accommodations.  An example is one very sharp and independent student the first year I did this went from a 0 out of 10 to a 7.  Ultimately he wasn’t a 10, but by the end of the year he understood the importance and knows that they help him.  At that point we have room to keep it moving forward…with his help.

Here’s a link to the Accommodations Assessment if I didn’t link it above


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