Lesson #2: Requesting academic accommodation

Requesting academic accommodation for my teenager daughter who lives with depression wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. Here’s what happened.

At some point, you may need to request academic accommodation for your child.

Accommodations are based on the premise that school is not about how you learn, but what you learn. They’re designed to “level the playing field” by recognizing that people with mental health disabilities or physical disabilities may be at a disadvantage.

In our case, the need for accommodations arose when my daughter was in grade ten. She was having trouble writing tests, and later that same year, the weekend before final exams she felt unable to write them at all. With her first exam scheduled for 9am on Monday morning and worth 30% of her final mark, my husband and I and her therapist scrambled to figure out how to handle the situation.

Accommodation in elementary and high schools

I started with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) website.

The TDSB is the largest school board in Canada and one of the largest in North America. It supports nearly a quarter million students and over 500 schools so it’s not insignificant that in 2013 the TDSB instituted a four-year mental health strategy. At its core was the  understanding that mental health was essential for student success.  I was hopeful until I saw their vision statement, strangely represented by this graphic.

I know they’re trying to move in the right direction, but what is this saying and who is this for? My guess is that it’s directed at staff, an aide to help them recognize students with mental illness — they’re the ones acting out, doing drugs. The psychotic ones with the mood and anxiety problems.

My daughter isn’t so easy to spot. Her average is in the high 80s, dragged down by only one or two subjects. She’s the one who goes in for extra help and raises her hand in class. She keeps cue cards of science terms from one year to the next. She participates in activities from athletics to fundraising. She’s also the one who has to leave early sometimes for an appointment with her therapist, or stay home because her new medication makes her dizzy or sleepy or nauseous or because she’s simply too depressed to go to school.

Tests, for her, can trigger panic attacks. Not all the time, but often enough. From what I understand, the experience is like having a heart attack and an asthma attack at the same time, while trying to answer a bunch of skill-testing questions before the clock runs out. Impossible, right?

Recognizing she had text anxiety, an astute teacher suggested my daughter turn her desk to face the back of the classroom and wear earplugs  to reduce distractions. This helped, but not enough so my daughter, in a show of confidence in both herself and in her guidance counsellor, self-advocated. She needed more from the school and thankfully they responded. After a brief but formal meeting between the administrators and my husband, my daughter was granted permission to write tests in the guidance counsellor’s office, though her marks were deemed too good to warrant any extra time. It, too, helped, but in the spring, the pressure of exams and her depression became too much to handle. With Monday looming and the school closed, we called her therapist seeking advice.

Does your child need academic accommodations?

The central question posed to my daughter was about stress and what would cause more stress at a time when she felt particularly fragile and unable to cope — writing them or not writing them. She struggled to answer.

If she opted out she was admitting to friends, teachers and herself that she was failing to function. But opting in didn’t seem to be an option. It was too much. A final hurdle she didn’t have the strength to climb over despite having climbed over hundreds of them in the last ten months. It felt like a huge setback. Like she wasn’t getting better. It was heartbreaking and frankly, depressing.

In her case, I wasn’t concerned about her academics. She was an A student. She had been studying for weeks in preparation. She wasn’t in danger of failing even if she got a zero, so the question for me was what would serve her better right now, in this moment. After tears and talking, we decided she’d opt out, and I’d advocate on her behalf for some sort of mark that wouldn’t make her ten months of struggle to get the grades she’d already earned seem pointless. I emailed her guidance counsellor and vice principal with a head’s up.

What documentation is required?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom dictates that schools need to be accessible to students with physical or mental disabilities. While I knew her school would have to accommodate her illness, I wasn’t sure how they’d handle it. And in the absence of any federal or provincial governmental standards, policies and procedures vary from one school to the next.

I learned from her therapist that most high schools will require a doctor’s note. My daughter saw a psychiatrist,  but their relationship was transactional–she prescribed medication, switching doses and brands when required. They barely talked. Her family physician saw her once a year and though she was aware my daughter was on medication, it felt ludicrous under the circumstances to reach out to either one for a note.

When I voiced this, her therapist, the one person who knew more about her mental health than anyone else including me, said she could write one, but it may not hold up. In the end I reached out to her psychiatrist. I’m not sure what she wrote–I never saw it–but it seemed to do the trick.

Which begs the question–what’s the point? And what did she say?

How will your child be assessed?

After a call with the school’s vice principal I learned that accommodation requests for mental health issues are not unusual at the school. Every year, they’re getting more and every case is handled individually.

She had to discuss my daughter’s situation with her teachers and the principal, but she told me that in most cases, they take the average exam mark and average that with the students term mark and term performance.

Fair? Who knows, but it was done and far easier than I thought it would be. Yet still, it was traumatic, for both of us.

If my daughter had the flu and was puking or had broken her leg on the weekend, or was concussed, there would have been no question in my mind as to whether or not I was doing the right thing or that she should be accommodated.  I also don’t think I would have started crying when I explained to the principal, a brilliantly empathetic woman, why my daughter couldn’t write her exams and why it was important she wasn’t given a zero. Or why I felt judged, imagined or real, when I told close friends or family that she was bowing out. It also made me worried for the future–what if it happens again?

The challenge, I think, is because her illness is invisible. I have to trust what she’s telling me and remind myself constantly that she may not have any ability to control her emotions or thought process. This is hard. When your kids are clearly, physically ill, you don’t question yourself on your parenting. But how many times has your child been on the cusp, when a couple Tylenol in the morning might clear the headache. That’s the grey area you live in when you parent depression. When your kid tells you they can’t write their exams, or go to school, or come to a family gathering you are forced to ask yourself, how bad is it while thinking privately could you maybe just suck it up for a few hours and do the damn thing.

It’s equally challenging for teachers and administrators, who are likely less aware or totally in the dark about a student’s mental state, and are tasked with setting standards and developing guidelines for evaluation.

The challenge of accommodations for teachers

Bruce Pardy, a professor of Law at Queen’s University, argued against accommodations in a column for the National Post in August 2017. His reasoning was that exams are a form of competition.  Just as we wouldn’t grant an athlete a head start in a 100-metre dash, we shouldn’t grant students extra time on tests. Pressure, he argues, is part of the conditions of the test and students who can’t bring it during the test are like athletes who crack under pressure on game day. Even knowing law schools use a bell curve to evaluate their students, it seems an archaic and ignorant view, so I was surprised when my brother, a high school teacher who also works in spec ed, told me he, too, has issues with accommodations.

While he disagrees with Pardy and sees value in giving kids extra time, or a quiet place to write tests to reduce potential causes of stress, he also sees the need for consequences. In his opinion, if you miss a final exam, your final mark should be docked accordingly. He thinks too many kids are requesting accommodations and too many are getting off too easy. Life is hard and stressful, he argues. By granting accommodations for anxiety and depression, he worries we’re failing to build resiliency in kids at a time in their lives when the stakes are lower.

Gail A. Hornstein, a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusettes falls somewhere in the middle. In her article “Why I dread the Accommodations Talk” for the Chronicle of Higher Education, she argues formal requests for accommodations based on diagnoses have become formulaic and often defensive. She blames the process more than anything and writes:

“Students certainly have needs, but those often have little to do with what’s on their accommodation forms. Our challenge as faculty members is to respond in ways that: (1) support our students’ fundamental educational goals, (2) find ways to help them when they need it, and (3) encourage thoughtful coping skills and resilience so that, when it’s possible, they can learn to manage on their own.”

Hornstein goes on to say the overly broad and vague criteria for what constitutes a student’s problem serves no one.

The future of academic accommodation

Consider these statistics from CAMH:

  • 70% of mental health problems begin in childhood or adolescence
  • 34%  of Ontario high-school students indicate a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression)
  • 14% indicate a serious level of psychological distress.
  • In 2012, suicide accounted for 15% of deaths among youth aged 10 to 14, 29% among youth aged 15 to 19, and 23% among young adults aged 20-24.

This wave of mental health challenges is heading to a university or college near you!

In February 2018, Laura Glowacki for the CBC documented the rise in accommodations at the post-secondary level based on data from Winnipeg post-secondary schools. At the top end, was the  University of Winnipeg which had a 70% jump in the number of accommodated exams or test between 2012 and 2017. The Toronto Star reported that at the University of Toronto, the number of students who received accommodations for psychiatric conditions jumped 143% between 2009 and 2016.

Clearly, our kids need support, and it’s up to us parents and educators to figure it out.

Functional limitations versus diagnosis 

In response to a growing problem, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities funded a research project n 2013 to better address the need to accommodate students with mental health disabilities. It stemmed from the recognition that educators needed better guidelines and standards. It also recognized the challenges of mental health illnesses — they fluctuate and can be episodic and influenced by medication.

Over 30 months, researchers from Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College interviewed 2300 stakeholders, visited best practice sites at the University of Manitoba and Queens University in Belfast and conducted focus groups and consulted with physicians. They then released a set of recommendations in 2015 in a paper called Academic Accommodations: Recommendations for Documentation Standards and Guidelines for Post-Secondary Students with Mental Health Disabilities.

Their number one recommendation was to recognize functional limitations as the basis for accommodation versus diagnosis of a condition. The idea behind this is that functional limitations are often evident even when a diagnosis of a condition is unclear.

This alone changes the conversation and the documentation requirements. Rather than a doctor’s note confirming a diagnosis, a functional limitations form takes into consideration the duration of a disability, negative effects of medication and functional limitations such as short term and long term memory function, the ability to manage distractions, meet deadlines, to control emotions during tests or evaluations, judgement or the ability to understand the impact of one’s behaviour on themselves or others or respond to change. By ranking these limitations in terms of severity, the specific problem to be solved becomes clearer for students and teachers, while arming schools with the information they need to lean in with greater support systems when necessary.

It’s not perfect. It requires that a student have a medical practitioner who can reliably answer these questions and it requires that a student feels comfortable disclosing their challenges, but it’s a start.

I’m also reassured that in university, unlike high school, there exists readily available policies on accommodations so that my daughter knows where to turn if she needs help, and what to expect.  But first we have to get through high school.

At least now, I have a plan. Her guidance counsellor suggested we meet in late August, before the school year begins.  Like Hornstein, she recommended we get specific about the triggers and develop coping mechanisms in advance. She suggested a lighter course load to take off some of the pressure and physical exercise to energize.

Will it work? The jury’s still out on that, but I’ll let you know. And if you have recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

 

 

 

 

 

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