The Infirmary

How to get accommodations in primary school + alternative options

NOTE: This article is specifically geared towards people living in the US. I'm aware that accommodations are available in other governments though, so do your research! Maybe this article will still help you in some ways :^)

High school was the absolute worst time of my life. I was fully immersed in PTSD mode which lead to alot of crying in class, panic attacks, meltdowns, isolation, and poor grades (which only made everything worse). Luckily, after a lot of talking to my school counselor I realized that I could apply for accommodations! This allowed me what one could call "special treatment" on the basis of my mental illnesses so that I could perform better in school and feel safer in the classroom.

Hopefully, this guide can help get you started on the path to a better and more manageable experience in school.

You will need:

  • A parent/guardian who believes you and will help
  • A health professional aware of your issues (recommended)
  • Lots of patience

It's important to note that, at least as far as I know, you technically don't need a doctor's opinion on your mental health to receive accommodations. However, this means that the school will have to evaluate your mental state on its own, which could potentionally be biased against you. I'll elaborate a bit more over the course of this article.

Contact the school and decide on your plan

Obviously the first step is to have your guardian contact your school counselor or principal and request that you get evaluated for a disability services. As you go through testing, this will help the administration determine if you need a 504 plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

A 504 plan is for students who generally work fine in their regular classroom environment but require extra accommodations or modifications to perform to the best of the ability.

An IEP is for students who require specialized instruction and services. This will usually get you put into special education classes, although depending on your needs you might still be attending regular classes for some of the day.

Personally, I was able to receive a 504 and rejected the idea of getting an IEP, so I won't be able to get too much into the details of that. However, I can say that an IEP specifically will involve you putting together a plan laying out your learning goals and what methods of instruction/accommodations will help facilitate that. A 504 will focus more on modifications to your current learning environment.

Note for students in higher education: in college, this takes a very similar process, except you'll likely be able to see a doctor without your parent's permission. In fact, you don't even need a parent for this! If you already had a 504 plan put together in high school, you can bring it in to your school's Disability Services department to expedite the process.

Anyways, let's get into the process of getting that 504.

Assessments by your 504 team

Once you have discussed the possibility of receiving disability services, you'll be put through some tests. Your 504 team will run you through some basic cognitive assessments. In my experience, I was pulled out of class a few times over the course of a couple weeks for this. 30% of the assessment will be based on your actual emotional state while the other 70% will be testing things like memory, pattern recognition, and language skills. They are primarily testing for intellectual and learning disabilities during these assessments. In my experience, it's not very helpful if you suffer from something like an anxiety disorder or mood disorder, so having a note from a doctor or therapist confirming your disability will give you some extra leverage here.

When you get to the part discussing your emotional health, do not downplay anything. Remember, you are in this situation because your mental illness is making it harder for you to properly function in school. Be direct about how you feel and maybe even exaggerate a bit. Instead of saying something like "I get anxious in class but I try to handle it," describe your anxious thoughts and how they may manifest in physical symptoms (e.g. heart pounding, hyperventilating, sweating, feeling colder/hotter). Describe how this impacts your ability to focus or get your work done. Make them see that just relying on your current coping mechanisms is not enough.

Deciding on accommodations

Once you have been approved for services, the administrator and/or 504 coordinator will usually ask you what accommodations you think you need. It's good to come into this prepared and research what accommodations you are able to receive and pick ones you think might be helpful. Here's a helpful guide by Dr. David Bateman that sorts possible accommodations by disability. If possible, have your parent back you up on your needs if the administrator seems skeptical.

In my experience, I was able to receive the following accommodations:

  • Being allowed to leave the classroom during an anxiety attack
  • Extra time on tests
  • Extensions on homework assignments
  • Being allowed to take tests in a separate room
  • Seeing a therapist (not counselor) on campus once a week

Advice going forward

By now, you should have your plan all set! It's important for either you or your parent (or both) to get a copy of your plan AND keep in contact with teachers, school staff, and your 504 Coordinator. Since 504s are not funded the same way special education for IEP-havers is, the administration might half-ass the implementation of your plan. Most of the time, your teachers will not be informed of this by the school board and it'll be up to you or your parents to tell them. I ended up sending my teachers an email with information about my 504 plan and what kinds of accommodations I needed.

By the way, don't feel anxious about doing this, since your teachers are required BY LAW to accommodate you! They can't help you if they don't know what you need :^) And if they refuse, you can always snitch to the higher-ups or file a disability discrimination complaint!

It's also worth noting that often, there are some unwritten accommodations that you can get just by talking to your teachers. I used music as a coping/focus mechanism and most of my teachers allowed me to keep my headphones on in class as long as I was still paying attention. Other teachers would do things without me asking, like warning me in advance if there was a potentially stressful thing coming up in class (like a socratic seminar... ugh).

Alternate schooling

For some people, simply getting accomodations might not be enough to help you. This was the case for me, and I ended up needing to transfer to an entirely different school. If you are unable to thrive in a typical high school setting, you may want to consider an alternative form of schooling such as homeschooling, online/virtual classes, or charter school. Charter schools are a bit fuzzy because they have more autonomy over their curriculum and teaching methods, so you will want to really look into your options to learn if a charter school is good for you.

Let's compare some of the options:

Homeschooling: Your parent is your teacher and sets your schedule, curriculum, and will use their own particular teaching methods. Because of this, your parents can be more flexible in meeting your goals and scheduling different teaching sessions and the amount of work because they will more directly know what you need. Because you will be learning one-on-one with a parent, you wown't be socialized around kids as it naturally happens in public school, so they will need to set opportunities for you to meet others your age. However, your parent can show some bias that through their own religious/political views and may weave this into your curriculum. In addition, this simply may not be an option due to your parents being busy.

Online/virtual school: You will be able to communicate and learn through teachers through online classes, which also provides a more one-on-one environment between you and your teacher. There is also some more flexibility with your learning, although a big difference is that religious/personal views cannot be inserted into the curriculum like it can be with your parent. However, your parent will also be able to have a more direct connection in your schooling and can oversee certain aspects of your education. Socialization is also frequently built into online classes through virtual classrooms and labs, and field trips are an option for some online schools.

As for charter schools, there's no single way that these things work. Because they aren't part of the school district, they have a lot of freedom in how they run things - including length of the school day, teaching methods, curriculum, etc. Because many charter schools are established to try different learning approaches, it depends school to school whether or not their approach works, and for which students it may work.

One particular type of charter school program that I'd suggest looking into is Independent Study.

What is Independent Study?

Independent study is a type of schooling that gives the student themselves a bit more flexibility to further their education while pursuing their individual interests. In these programs, you are assigned a supervising teacher who oversees your assignments as well as your grading. First meeting with them involves them getting to know you to set educational goals, choosing your classes/electives, deciding how often to meet, and receiving your first assignments. From then on, you just work on your assignments from home and come in at your meeting dates to go over your assignments. It's a great option for students who feel confident in their ability to get their work done at their own pace, but also would like a more personalized approach to their learning.

You also get a lot more freedom in the types of assignments you do. In my experience, I was allowed to pick my book report books from a list instead of being assigned something I might not be interested in reading. I also wasn't always able to complete my assignments on time due to mental health issues. For example, I might have had to read a short story and then answer the comprehension questions, but I didn't completely finish doing the questions. Instead, I had a conversation with my teacher about the story, and she gave me credit because I was still able to show my reading comprehension that way.

On top of all this, a school that focuses on independent study may have some extra services not found at other schools - much less public schools. At the one I went to, they actually had an on-campus therapist and psychologists who could provide their services to students in need. This was different from regular school counseling - by being able to identify a student's issues like this, they could both work with the teacher to adjust their goals as well as provide professional counseling to the student. Obviously this service might not be available across the board, but it's clearly a possibility through this particular charter school.

One thing I should mention though is that you might not be guaranteed socialization opportunities in an independent study program, since I wasn't. The only time I actually interacted with other students was at graduation. You may have some optional opportunities though, such as field trips or events at the school.

I definitely hope that this article helps anyone who has been struggling in school and needs support or alternative solutions! I can't say which option is best for you, but I wanted to provide some information on the different options that I've personally had exposure to. If you do decide to look into alternate schooling: DO YOUR RESEARCH!!! Especially if you consider charter schools! Remember, this is all about my experiences in one specific American state, so your results may vary!

Being a teen/young adult with mental illness is difficult, especially when coupled with the unforgiving and outdated nature of public school. I'm wishing you all well - I had a really hard time of it when I was younger, and I can only hope that things go okay for you while you make it through the system. Hang in there! ❤