What Does It Mean To Support Students With Learning Disabilities?

Image of teachers and students in the classroom learning

Lately, I’ve been doing a fair bit of work with my school leaders to help our staff be better positioned to teach and support our Students with Learning Needs (SWLN). It’s not to say that our staff are not doing anything – they are. It’s also not to say that they don’t know what they are doing – on the most part, they do. But I’ve come to the realization that there is, a lack of understanding in knowing the ‘why’ behind their supports, (aside from the obvious why that is).

Why do we modify, adjust or accommodate the learning needs of students?

The obvious answer lies in our legal obligations. The Australian Disability Discrimination Act (Government, 2020) and Disability Standards for Education (DEAT, 2018) relate to ensuring that

(1) a person is not treated unfairly because of their disability and

(2) that a student with a disability can learn and participate in education on the same basis as their peers.

Within our classroom and our teaching practice, it is up to us to ensure that a SWLN is able to learn and is not made to feel different because of their struggles. I mean you wouldn’t ask a student with a broken leg to run 100 metre race, would you?

And it’s the words – modify, adjust and accommodate – that I’ve come to realise that staff struggle to understand. By unpacking the differences between modification, adjustment and accommodation I’ve seen a real change in classroom practice.

Let’s unpack this further

Modification. In education terms, modification means that changes in academic expectations need to be made. That the student is working at a level below their peers, and as such, we need to modify the curriculum expectations to enable them to achieve and feel success. A student with an Intellectual Disability or a Developmental Language Delay requires modifications. They are cognitively behind their age appropriate peers so cannot be expected to complete the exact same output as their peers. Teachers need to modify their level of work so that it is more cognitively appropriate. Students who require modification may also benefit from accommodations and adjustments, depending on the subject and their challenges.

Accommodations and adjustments can be discussed in the same manner. This is where teachers need to make decisions that either accommodate the disability or the learning is adjusted because of the disability.

  • When we accommodate, we use our knowledge of the learning challenges for the student and use this for their outcomes.
  •  Yet, when we make adjustments, we are changing the way we expect an output from a student because of their challenge.

Take Dyslexia for example – it is a Specific Learning Disorder generally related to reading and writing. We can’t ask a student with a reading disability to sit and read a passage of text aloud to the class, or even to themselves, without some sort of accommodation or adjustment. To accommodate the dyslexia, a teacher would avoid asking this student to read aloud. To make an adjustment for dyslexia would be to allow the student to use assistive technology that reads aloud to them as they follow along.

How to know which is appropriate?

This is where your knowledge of your student in your class is paramount. When planning your lesson or assessment task, teachers need to take the time to consider the following question for each SWLN.

  • Is the student capable with a couple of tweaks or will it not be enough to just tweak?

If the student is still not going to be able to achieve with adjustments, then modifications might also need to be made.

Always ensure you have consulted with both the student and their family to ensure they are

(1) aware that changes to their curriculum need to be made and

(2) to give the student a voice in their learning – that they have been consulted and agree to what you’re planning for them.

I always tell my parents that they have a PhD in their child, and this goes a long way to helping us at school to know how best to support their learning journey.

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Published on: August 11, 2020

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