The Infirmary

How to get accommodations in primary school

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. In my opinion, it's not very helpful if you suffer from something like anxiety or depression, 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 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 from Indiana's Department of Education 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 were 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).

Stay tuned for an update to this article on alternative schooling.