In a busy classroom, it can be daunting to meet the varied learning needs of all your students. Knowing you’re also responsible for implementing instructional and in students’ IEPs and 504 plans can make it feel even more challenging. But with the right information, you can provide these important supports to help all students thrive.
Here are key concepts to keep in mind and steps you can take to implement accommodations and modifications for your students.
Accommodations and modifications: Key concepts
These important ideas can help you implement accommodations and modifications effectively.
Accommodations and modifications are not the same thing. An accommodation changes how students access and learn the same material as their peers — without lowering the academic expectations. A modification changes what students are taught or expected to learn.
Fair does not mean equal. Students and some teachers may worry that having extra supports in place for some students gives them an unfair advantage. But it’s important to remember that all students have individual strengths and needs. Accommodations and modifications are designed to level the playing field. Focusing on equity can help give everyone a chance to thrive in the classroom.
Collaboration is critical. Partnering with special education staff and related service providers can help you understand the purpose of the accommodations and modifications. It also gives you the chance to work through challenges you’re having in implementing these supports. Some accommodations may be easy to use in the classroom. Others might require more time to learn to use — for both you and your students.
Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for help if you’re not sure how to implement an accommodation, modify a lesson, or use a specific type of .
Students and their families are key partners. Ongoing communication and trusting relationships can help you learn more about how students are doing with the supports they’re receiving. At first, some students might not feel confident coming to you to talk if they have concerns about using their accommodations. You can check in with parents to ask: Do the students feel comfortable using the accommodations? Do they find the accommodations easy to access? How could you work together to make the supports even more helpful?
Planning with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can eliminate extra work. Applying UDL principles in your lessons can meet the needs of the whole range of students in your classroom. By proactively anticipating barriers to learning, you can build in supports that help all students access the material. And by making these supports available to all students, you’re recognizing that students who have IEPs and 504 plans aren’t the only ones who have challenges.
Students may not need to use an accommodation for every lesson. Most students who learn and think differently spend the majority of their school day in the general education classroom. But these students vary in the amount of support they need. Some need accommodations in just one or two classes or subjects. Others might need them across the board.
If students are successful during a lesson, they may choose not to use their accommodations for that lesson. If your students’ work is up to the same standards as their peers’ work, you don’t need to insist that they use accommodations. You just need to provide these supports as an option.
Ready, set, implement
Once you know the basic concepts, there are practical steps you can take to implement accommodations and modifications for your students.
1. Read your students’ IEPs and 504 plans. Each student’s plan should make it clear which accommodations or modifications are needed and in what context. As you read, highlight any questions you have about how to implement each accommodation or modification and what it should look like in the classroom. Write down the accommodations and modifications.
2. Learn to use the materials yourself. Familiarize yourself with the accommodation if you don't know enough about it. After all, it’s hard to help a student learn to use a support if you aren’t sure how to use it yourself. Draw on the power of collaboration. The technologist or should provide you and the student with training on how and when to use specific tools.
3. Plan how to set up your classroom to use these tools most effectively. If a student’s accommodation or assistive device means they need to be close to a power outlet, how can you arrange classroom seating so the student doesn’t have to sit away from peers? Other questions to consider:
- Do you need a dedicated space to store equipment when it’s not in use?
- Where can you place physical accommodations, like slant boards or fidgets, so students can access them discreetly and without disrupting your lesson?
4. Give students time to practice using new accommodations. Introduce the use of a new tool or support when students are working with content they know well. That way they’re not trying a new way to approach work and trying to learn new information at the same time.
5. Anticipate and address any questions other students might ask. Some students may be very aware that a classmate is getting extra support, while other students may not even notice. Whether students raise questions or not, it’s important to establish a classroom culture that prioritizes inclusion and belonging. Begin by setting a standard in your classroom that everyone has different strengths and challenges, and that it’s OK to ask for and receive what you need to thrive.
If the question of “fair” comes up, point out that some disabilities aren’t visible. Remind your students that everyone learns and processes information differently. With this information, your class can come to understand that students receive accommodations so they can learn the way they need to.
6. Keep track of when students use their accommodations. Take notes about when students use their accommodations independently, when you need to suggest using the supports, when students choose not to use them, and the outcomes. This is quick and easy to do with a customizable tracker.
You can use this tool in many ways. You can use it to remind yourself which supports each student needs. This can be helpful as you plan lessons and as you teach.
The tracker can also help you keep a record of how often students use supports. This information can be valuable to the IEP team if they want to learn whether supports are working or need to be changed. The team may also want to know if students can use the supports without prompting.
A third way you can use the tracker is with an instructional coach or mentor. If you want to improve how you use accommodations and modifications, your coach can be a third-party observer and use the tracker to give you feedback about how you use the supports.
7. Evaluate the use of the accommodation or modification. Reflecting on notes from your tracker can help you find patterns. You may realize that a student won’t use an accommodation if they have to self-advocate for it. You may also learn that a student doesn’t need the support in a certain subject area. Or you may find that you can provide the most commonly used accommodations and modifications to your whole class with some tweaks to the classroom environment.
8. Suggest adjustments as necessary. Both IEPs and 504 plans are legally binding documents. As a result, you can’t make the decision to change or discontinue accommodations and modifications. But you can ask the student support team to revisit them if the data you’ve collected shows that something else might be more effective. Talk with the IEP case manager or 504 coordinator about setting up a meeting to discuss whether to make changes.
Giving all students what they need
Providing accommodations and modifications for students who learn and think differently can be challenging — but it’s entirely doable. With careful planning, collaboration with the student support team, and a way to track your efforts, you can make your classroom a place where all students have what they need to learn.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.