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Special Education

Accommodations and Modifications in Special Education

What is the difference and why do you care?

Many of you have heard the terms “modifications” and “accommodations.” These are two big buzz words used in special education and are often used interchangeably. However, these two terms do NOT mean the same thing and have very important implications for your child’s learning. It is important to KNOW the difference. Before I begin explaining, I would like to stress the fact that accommodations and modifications are fluid with each other. Just because a student requires modifications in reading, they may receive accommodations rather than modifications in science. Students, especially those with ASD, may slide back and forth from Modifications to Accommodations based on interest, cognitive abilities, and lack of reciprocity depending on factors such as content area, time of year, and specific curriculum areas.

Accommodations: Technical Definition

Accommodations are supports and services provided to help a student access the general education curriculum and validly demonstrate learning Examples of Accommodations:
  • Time: extend the time allotted to take a test, finish an assignment, learn a concept, or complete an activity
  • Setting: students can take tests in a distraction free space – potentially a resource room so it is easier for the child to focus. This accommodation may be as easy as preferential seating (does the student need to be close to the board to see or next to the teacher to hear?)
  • Level of support: paraprofessional or peer assistant
  • Reduce Response effort: The use of a calculator, scribe, or word processor to assist the student when an answer is expected. The student still must understand the concept of what is asked in order to accurately manipulate any of these tools. **If a student knows their basic math facts, a calculator is an accommodation. If the student does not know their facts, it may be considered a modification.
  • Sensory items: fidgets to help students focus
  • Visual schedules

To put it into Perspective…

Many teachers and parents who do not understand accommodations often feel that these supports and services will hinder a child’s learning by causing learned helplessness. I have often heard the argument that the child will never learn how to do it on his own if we provide these accommodations. I often deliver this analogy that I have heard used so often: If a child has a visual impairment, would we deny him glasses to help his vision? Glasses or contacts are an accommodation used by many people. It would not be reasonable to say that if a person was denied glasses or contacts, they would just “learn” how to see without that support.

So…what does that mean for your child?

  • Accommodations will NOT affect a student’s grade or credits.
  • Students can validly demonstrate learning of the GENERAL EDUCATION curriculum
  • Are on the lower end of the continuum for support – least restrictive.

Modifications: Technical Definition

Individualized changes made to the content and performance expectations for students Examples of Modifications:
  • Quantity: Modify the number of items that the child is expected to learn or complete. (Depending on how it is written in the IEP, this could include entire sections of the curriculum. I.E: Only completing the addition portion of a math assignment that also includes subtraction, multiplication and division)
  • Output: How a student responds to instruction For Example: Instead of writing an essay, they may be given multiple choice questions. Instead of open-ended questions, they may be given a yes/no strategy option
  • Alternate Goals: Use the general education curriculum while adapting the goal or outcome expectation. For example: Instead of taking the MEAP test, the student takes the MI-Access

So…what does that mean for your child?

  • Modifications will affect a student’s grade.
  • Actual changes are made to the materials passed out by the general education teachers
  • Must consider what you want your child to get from their education. What is the MOST important? Is that different (in some way) than what everyone else is learning?

WRITTEN ON December 26, 2013 BY:


Melissa Ferry is a special education teacher for Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. She earned her bachelor's degree from Michigan State University with an endorsement in learning disabilities. Melissa is continuing her education at Central Michigan University in pursuit of a Master's Degree. Prior to her career as a teacher Melissa volunteered at Friendship Circle for seven years.