Many parents have heard of traditional testing accommodations, such as extra time on tests for children with dyslexia or ADHD.
Less well-known are asset-based accommodations for students with learning disabilities and differences. These, however, can be highly effective. Asset-based accommodations are what they sound like — tools that capitalize on students’ assets. They are adaptations (to a curriculum and related assessments) that enable a student to learn and demonstrate skills effectively. For instance, a student who struggles with writing may be allowed to create a visual slideshow in lieu of a report. Alternatively, a student with receptive language difficulties may be able to read an article instead of watching a short video. In both of these examples, the student is learning key information — while also demonstrating subject mastery in a format in which she excels.
In his memoir Thinking Differently, David Flink, co-founder of the national mentoring organization Eye to Eye, explains that asset-based accommodations are an educational approach that looks to “each student’s specific strengths to make constructive changes to the learning process.” As he points out, traditional accommodations — such as additional time on tests — are easier to implement, but they cannot solve the underlying phonological difficulty of reading for a child with dyslexia. And while experts like Dr. Sally Shaywitz argue that traditional accommodations are valuable supports for kids with dyslexia, such adjustments do not allow these students to demonstrate their mastery or strengths fully.
Unlike traditional accommodations, which are provided through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan, there is currently no legal foundation for offering asset-based accommodations. As a result, children are not guaranteed these supports from year to year. That said, the absence of a formal framework for their provision does not prevent teachers from implementing asset-based accommodations for students who benefit from them.
In fact, many strong teachers are already implementing asset-based accommodations for projects, assignments, and even tests. And since teachers who work in mixed-ability classrooms necessarily cover a range of topics and skill levels, they consistently differentiate in all aspects of their teaching, a practice that is especially well-suited to asset-based accommodations.
Asset-based adaptations do not ignore learning standards, as some worry, but rather use their implicit flexibility to meet the needs of students who may struggle with conventional teaching approaches. Guidelines like the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) articulate what students need to learn, but not how they need to learn or demonstrate mastery.
For instance, one CCSS ELA goal has students conducting “short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.” As Margaret J. McLaughlin, a leading expert on special education at the University of Maryland notes in a piece describing Universal Design for Learning, many standards are "flexible enough that all learners can meet this goal,” since the standards do not specify how the particular objective is to be met.
Such flexibility allows for students to conduct research projects based on videos, magazine articles, primary sources, or a combination of these. Learners can, in turn, demonstrate their understanding by devising a board game, writing a report, or creating a Prezi presentation.
In terms of their effects on social-emotional learning, asset-based accommodations may help students recognize their own strengths and feel more motivated about completing schoolwork.
Allowing a student who is interested in coding to design a website about a scientific element does not absolve that student of taking on deep academic work. On the contrary, she still needs to conduct research, synthesize material, and build a digital model that accurately and graphically demonstrates her mastery of the topic.
Project-based learning is one especially effective type of asset-based accommodation. Its collaborative nature allows students to complement one another’s strengths, provide support in areas where one team member may be struggling, and develop new solutions to issues that may arise as the project progresses. As Noodle Expert Kyle Redford explains in her piece on using project-based learning to support students with dyslexia, one of the values of this support is that it permit students' creativity and problem-solving skills to shine through.
LD activist David Flink has recounted his own experience with an asset-based accommodation that allowed him to interview experts rather than read material on the subject when he was doing graduate work at the Center for Disability Studies at Columbia University. He recommends encouraging students who struggle with reading to conduct interviews, watch educational videos, or listen to audiobooks — instead of requiring them to read multiple texts. Providing students with guided choices helps them to foster self-awareness and enables them to cultivate their strengths. As with many supports for students with learning disabilities, these alternatives can provide authentic, engaging, and meaningful opportunities to explore subjects and demonstrate mastery of a topic.
Including the Student
Micah Goldfus, National Program Director at Eye to Eye, emphasizes the importance of giving students “a voice in their own education.” The organization helps families obtain asset-based accommodations for their children. Goldflus says that the “greatest obstacle is not giving the student ample space to discuss what accommodations are most needed, which includes thorough conversations about what accommodations are and what they can be for that student.”
Goldfus argues that it is vital for students to explore how they learn best, and this may require some trial and error — an important part of the process in itself. He sees the greatest successes when “students are given the space to advocate for their own needs in the classroom.” His tip to parents is to educate their children about the “full range of accommodations, and ask him or her to be a part of the IEP or 504 Plan process."
A Lifetime of Growth
In many ways, the learning requirements of school are far more rigid than those we experience outside of that setting. For instance, as a speech-language pathologist, if I need to learn about a new evidence-based instructional tool, I can typically choose to read several research articles, attend an in-person professional development session, watch a series of webinar videos, or observe a colleague lead a number of lessons.
Beyond the realm of education, I know Web developers, lawyers, and bankers with learning disabilities who all have flexibility in how they get their work done; they may use any number of approaches that build on their strengths. An attorney friend has Web chats in lieu of in-person meetings because she expresses herself more clearly in writing than face to face. Other professionals I know regularly present content via PowerPoint rather than Word because they are better able to organize and share their expertise visually.
A former student of mine now uses the “Specials” board at the restaurant where he works as a server to assist him with his memory difficulties. By integrating asset-based accommodations into his education, his teachers were able to support his learning while he was in school and equip him with strategies to ensure his future success once he entered the workplace.
English Language Arts Standards » Writing » Grade 6-8. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2015, from Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Flink, D. (n.d.). Thinking Differently. Retrieved August 1, 2015.
Grindal, T. (2015, May 19). The Well-Intentioned But Misguided Advice of Neil deGrasse Tyson: Why Allocating More Time for Reading Is the Wrong Approach for Dyslexics. Retrieved August 1, 2015, from The Huffington Post.
Kaufman, S. (2014, October 21). The Creative Gifts of ADHD. Retrieved August 1, 2015, from Scientific American.
McLaughlin, M. (2012, September 1). Access for All. Retrieved August 1, 2015, from Universal Design for Learning Center.
Redford, K. (n.d.). Dyslexics and "Real-World" Learning. Retrieved August 1, 2015, from Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.
Universal Design for Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2015, from Universal Design for Learning Center.