Beyond IEPs And 504 Plans: Why You Should Consider Asset-Based Accommodations

It is important to remember that asset-based accommodation in the classroom can have a long-term impact. By integrating accommodations into the school setting, teachers can support learning and equip students with strategies that will ensure future success in any field.


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. Though less common, these accommodations 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 its 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 accommodation is 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 stand to benefit. 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—practice that is especially well-suited to asset-based accommodations.

Learning Standards

Asset-based adaptations do not ignore learning standards, as some worry they might, 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), re-named Next Generation Standards in New York, 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 mediums. Learners can, in turn, demonstrate their understanding by devising a board game, writing a report, or creating a Prezi presentation.

Student Growth

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.

An Example

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 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.

Expert Recommendations

LD activist David Flink has recounted his own experience with an asset-based accommodation, which allowed him to interview experts rather than read material while performing 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 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.” Goldfus argues that it is vital for students to explore how they learn best; this may require some trial and error, which is 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 child 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 schools 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.

It is important to remember that asset-based accommodation in the classroom can have a long-term impact. By integrating accommodations into the school setting, teachers can support learning and equip students with strategies that will ensure future success in any field.