How To Advocate for School Accommodations for Black Children

Whether your child has, or needs, a 504 plan or an IEP, they have a right to the accommodations in school that will help them succeed.

For those of us parenting children who require accommodations to thrive in school, it's important to be prepared. Supporting children who are neurodivergent or have disabilities, especially Black children, requires quite a bit of parent advocacy. Black children who need accommodations in school are often misdiagnosed with conduct and behavior disorders or otherwise not diagnosed at all. They are less likely to receive both autism diagnoses and ADHD diagnoses and, ultimately, less likely to receive needed services in school.

Heather Clarke, a disability rights activist and an adjunct professor for early childhood and special education at Queens College, City University of New York, says Black people come from a culture that emphasizes knowledge and learning. But racism—both interpersonal and systemic—continues to limit the access we have to the facilities and materials our children need to thrive. This has specific consequences for children who need additional support navigating the school system. Still, Black parents can help ensure their children get the academic support they need.

What Is an IEP?

An individualized education plan (IEP) details the mandated services that educators must provide for your child's disability in order for them to succeed. Students who are eligible for special education—this includes, but is not limited to, children with developmental delays, speech delays, and autism—benefit from IEPs.

Start with an evaluation. Aim for an IEP.

"If your child is in a public school, they absolutely must provide accommodations," says Clarke. She notes that if your child has an individualized education plan (IEP), which details the mandated services they must provide for your child's disability, this is especially true since it's a federal document. But if your child doesn't have one, don't worry!

"You have every right to request and demand an evaluation based on your child's disability so that they can provide the services so that your child can access their appropriate education so that they can thrive in public school," she says, explaining the best steps for those unsure how to start the process. "I would document everything that's happening in school in writing—every interaction. And then write a letter to the school-based support team, that is the SBST, requesting that they do the evaluation as soon as possible and start the IEP process."

In addition to IEPs, 504 plans, which are more flexible plans outlining how educational institutions will support the needs of students with disabilities who are not necessarily in special education, also provide accommodations. Some common accommodations available through either an IEP or a 504 include:

  • Extra testing time
  • Texts and instructions read aloud by digital audio or another person
  • Small group settings or rooms designed with limited distractions
  • Frequent breaks or more time to complete assignments and projects
  • Access to calculators, dictionaries, and other resources during tests

These accommodations aren't guaranteed in private school settings, where support is given on a school-by-school basis. When they are provided, they're most often service plans and require students to seek support, like speech therapy services, through the local education agency at a different school.

Refuse deficit-based feedback.

Of course, determining what's best for your child means having an open communication channel with the educators, who are also members of your child support team. When it comes to hearing the challenges your child might face in school, delivery matters.

"I believe that all communications with parents should start with a positive commentary and not deficit-based language when we're talking about our children and students," she says, stating support for educators who provide positive feedback with constructive criticism.

Even as we identify areas of improvement, it's important to remember that our children are constantly progressing and doing good things. Clarke recommends teachers begin with the "glows," or positives and areas your child is doing well, then proceed to the "grows," or the areas that can use improvement. Clarke says educators should be communicating your child's needs in a way that does not focus on the negatives or present your child as someone who only struggles. If that type of communication is not happening, parents should recommend the "glows then grows" approach to their child's educational team.

African american female teacher and boy talking in hand sign language at elementary school
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Seek appropriate solutions.

Children have different needs based on circumstances, so naturally there will be different solutions based on the type of accommodations needed.

Despite being a commonly proposed solution for children who are struggling to meet predetermined academic standards, Clarke says that holding students back to repeat a grade isn't necessarily effective at supporting our children's needs. "There is a disconnect between children's developmental level, what they're doing in their age group, and what children are learning academically," she says, advising parents to push back against those suggestions, even if you need support from an advocate. "If they're held back a grade and they're learning in the same manner, holding them back is not going to help them because they're still being taught the same type of pedagogy, or style of learning, as opposed to a pedagogy that's based on helping students who have disabilities."

Special education services, however, can help provide students with special needs or disabilities the support they need in school.

Parents and educators should collaborate to determine a child's specific needs. Is math help necessary? Is it reading or fine motor skills that's causing them to struggle as they hold a pencil? The specifics matter. Clarke also emphasizes the importance of documenting discussed solutions and communications, keeping a record of your child's work samples, and requesting an evaluation.

Celebrate, advocate, and readjust expectations.

Still, Clarke notes that it can be challenging for a parent to adjust to the news that their child needs additional help. Having your child receive a diagnosis, like autism, is an intensive and lengthy process. As much as we love our children, adapting to who they are versus who we expect them to be is a process. She says parents should celebrate the dedication required to make this far—and the win of a diagnosis—and take a deep breath before doing the work of readjusting their expectations.

"Now you understand that your child is neurodiverse, and you have to understand that your child does not need to be fixed," she says. "But you're going to the next step to figure out what barriers need to be removed and what things that you can do to help your child thrive."

She says that getting tapped into the community with others who share your child's identity is a great way to get recommendations that support them in ways that negatively impact their dignity, agency, or humanity as little as possible. Afterward, she recommends making sure your child's therapist—be it mental health, speech, or physical—is a good fit and you're on the same page.

"You have every right to say, 'I don't feel well with this therapist, or I don't want to work with this therapist," she says. "Never feel badly about that. That's your child, and that's your child's rights and their humanity."

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