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To Accommodate, To Modify, and To Know the Difference: Determining Placement of a Child in Special Education or "504"

by Nakonia (Niki) Hayes

With an exponential growth in special services being required for public school students who are considered to have learning disabilities and/or handicapping conditions in the United States, it is important to choose appropriately from the different levels of federally mandated services now available in school programs.

Imagine a large, ostrich-sized hard-boiled egg sliced vertically and cleanly, revealing the thick outside protective shell, the egg's white cooked area, and the egg's solid yolk. Now imagine a ruby in the center of the egg yolk.

This representational picture can be used to help people understand the relationships of all students in a school who range from the "regular" child with no handicapping condition or disability, to the student who is handicapped/disabled but who succeeds without special services, to the "substantially limited" student who needs some "accommodations," and to the student who needs which are called content "modifications."

The egg's shell represents all the students in the school. The egg white represents any student who has a recognized or perceived special need or condition that could impact his/her life. This student, for whatever reason, does not receive, require or ask for special services and is seen as a successful learner.

The egg yolk represents those children who also have some recognized or perceived circumstances and/or condition that substantially limits their learning. They have been recommended to a school committee and approved for special environmental/physical accommodations in their school setting, under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act's Section 504 statute. This federal legislation (originally designed to help Vietnam veterans), protects an individual's civil rights and guarantees nondiscrimination toward handicapped individuals, regardless of their ages. The American Disabilities Act of 1990 further protects these civil rights by requiring that reasonable physical accommodations be provided to remove barriers for handicapped individuals in the private sector: buildings, transportation, and communications.

Lastly, the ruby center of the egg yolk represents students who need modifications. These children need special instruction presented at their level of cognitive development.

Explaining and understanding the differences between accommodations and modifications in the school setting can help determine the most effective and appropriate placement for students who are deemed eligible for special help.

For example, the following are considered "outside-the-body"/physical/environmental accommodations. Many of these accommodations are used on a regular basis, or as needed, in the general education classroom. Most teachers see them as simply good teaching strategies:

Pacing: extending/adjusting time; allowing frequent breaks; varying activity often; omitting assignments that require timed situations.

Environment: leaving class for academic assistance; preferential seating; altering physical room arrangement; defining limits (physical/behavioral); reducing/minimizing distractions (visual, auditory, both); cooling off period; sign language interpreter.

Presentation of Material: emphasizing teaching approach (visual, auditory, tactile, multi); individualizing/small group instruction; taping lectures for replay; demonstrating/modeling; using manipulatives/hands-on activities; pre-teaching vocabulary; utilizing advance organizers; providing visual cues.

Materials and Equipment/Assistive Technology: taping texts; highlighting material; supplementing material/laminating material; note taking assistance/copies from others; typing teacher's material rather than using handwriting on board; color overlays; using calculator, computer, word processor; using Braille text; using large print books; using decoder for television and film; having access to any special equipment.

Grading: giving credit for projects; giving credit for class participation.

Assignments: giving directions in small, distinct steps; allowing copying from paper/book; using written back-up for oral directions; adjusting length of assignment; changing format of assignment (matching, multiple choice, fill-in-blank, etc.); breaking assignment into series of smaller assignments; reducing paper/pencil tasks; reading directions/assignments to students; giving oral/visual cues or prompts; allowing recording/dictated/typed answers; maintaining assignment notebook; avoiding penalizing for spelling errors on every paper.

Reinforcement and Follow-through: using positive reinforcement; using concrete reinforcement; checking often for understanding/review; providing peer tutoring; requesting parent reinforcement; having student repeat/explain the directions; making/using vocabulary files; teaching study skills; using study sheets/guides; reinforcing long-term assignment timelines; repeating review/drill; using behavioral contracts/check cards; giving weekly progress reports; providing before and/or after school tutoring; conferring with student (daily, biweekly, weekly, etc.).

Testing Adaptations: reading test verbatim to student (in person or recorded); shortening length of test; changing test format (essay vs. fill-in blank vs. multiple choice, etc.); adjusting time for test completion; permitting oral answers; scribing test answers for student; permitting open book/notes exams; permitting testing in isolated/different location.

Accommodations are used for students placed under Section 504 "protection," with an Individual Accommodation Plan (IAP) written and monitored by the school's "504 Committee." Students with a 504 plan remain in the regular classroom.

In many instances, once a child's needs are reviewed, a team of adults can decide to try certain accommodations in a particular regular education setting, before resorting to a formalized 504 plan. If the regular education setting can accommodate the child's needs so that he/she can get "back on track," there is no need to write a formal 504 plan, which, if written and signed, becomes a federal, legal mandate to be followed by all individuals named in the plan.

In contrast, modifications of content material require structural, cognitive change in the level of the material:

Presentation of Subject Matter: utilizing specialized curriculum written at a lower level of understanding.

Materials and Equipment/Assistive Technology: adapting or simplifying texts for lower level of understanding; modifying content areas by simplifying vocabulary, concepts and principles.

Grading: modifying weights of examinations.

Assignments: lowering reading level of assignment; adapting worksheets, packets with simplified vocabulary.

Testing Adaptations: reducing reading level of test.
It is easy to see there is a much more restricted and smaller list of modifications as compared to the lengthy possibilities found under accommodations. Judgments and hearings have begun to differentiate between these two resources which are being used to impact the learning programs of millions of students.

In other words, there is a greater demand for more appropriate placement of students, and better attention on how to meet their real learning needs.

Students tested by licensed diagnosticians or other certificated personnel, and who score significant standard deviations below their IQ, are considered potential candidates for specially-designed instruction, which encompasses all accommodations, modifications and related services needed by the child to achieve an educational benefit from school. We say such students may be "potential candidates" because a full-scale review of the whole child must consider the cause of his/her apparent cognitive deficiencies.

During that review, the team of adults may conclude the child needs not only content modifications, but environmental accommodations.

Remember the representational picture of the egg: The modifications relate to the student who is the ruby inside the egg yolk. The egg yolk represents 504 children who may need accommodations. Therefore, all Special Education students are automatically included under Section 504 for civil rights protection, and any needed accommodations, as well as modifications and related services.

If the committee declares the child eligible for Special Education services, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is written. Like the 504 plan, this document becomes a federally-mandated "contract" between the school and family, but unlike Section 504, the IEP is tied to additional federal funding that helps pay the costs of educating the child.

Specifically, Section 504 with its accommodations is an equity issue. Special Education services, with its modifications (which may require extra expenditures for specially-designed instructional materials) is a funding issue, bringing in more dollars to a district and/or building from the federal government. (Special Education is regulated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975 and its amendments of 1997.)

In summary, anyone looking at a student's records and assessments must ask, "Does this child need specially-designed instruction due to neurological disabilities?" (It must be remembered that neurological deficiencies, or disabilities, are the result of organic problems or brain trauma caused by accident, sickness, or disease. Cognitive deficiencies can be the result of neurological impairments or from simply not knowing "how to learn," due to cultural deprivation and/or a lack of mediating adults in the child for "special education services."

Even if the child qualifies for Special Education, but he/she does not really need specially-designed instruction formalized in an IEP, the weight of consideration then falls upon which accommodations he/she might need to help bring about (or maintain) school success. And, this "success" is measured against what the student's peers or regular students would be expected to achieve in this present learning situations. The accommodations would not be used to determine what strategies would guarantee a student's success (or lack of failure), but what ones would help set up equity -- a level playing field whereby the student would have opportunities to achieve specified goals.

If the team determines the child needs only accommodations to improve his/her chances of success, the individual(s) choosing those accommodations should select about three (no more than five) such strategies/activities. For one thing, each accommodation that is checked must be done every day or for every event (such taking a test). Limiting choices to a few physical or environmental changes helps those working with the student to assess the effectiveness of the stated accommodations. Too many changes make if difficult to sort out which changes are having which effects. (This recommendation is also strongly urged for choosing modification for the eligible Special Education student.)

Finally, when looking at which accommodations to implement, it's especially important to remember the following: "Don't worry about fixing what ain't broke."

Also, by adjusting academic expectations through accommodations, adults often impact behavior issues, seeing them diminish or even disappear completely.

The purpose of many academic/school accommodations is to offer a temporary situation while the student is being taught specific strategies of organizational skills, coping mechanisms, and self-control issues. The goal should be to ratchet the student's ability up to the point he/she can succeed without continual, special assistance.

This same reminder can be made about modifications for special education students. Many of them can advance to needing only accommodations. From there, many can reach that position of needing no special services.

This means that Special Education is a service, not a place. It also means that, for many, it should not represent a life sentence.

About the author

Niki Hayes is a former Elementary school principal who has now retired. She formerly worked as an education specialist for Region 12 Education Service Center in Waco, Texas where she served as 504 coordinator for its 79 school districts and as a teacher trainer for the SPED programs. She has also been a principal for a P-12 public school on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Niki has her master's degree in counseling, a bachelor's degree in journalism and is certified and experienced in administration, mathematics, special education, counseling and journalism. She has done some doctoral work in mathematics education at the University of Texas in Austin. Nakonia (Niki) Hayes can be reached at

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