When addressing learning differences and other academic challenges, there are two approaches: accommodation and remediation. Accommodation means providing extra support or alternative options to make things easier for the student. For example, a student with dyslexia might get extra time for reading assignments, or a student with ADHD might get to take their tests in a separate room that has fewer distractions. Remediation means working to grow the student’s abilities in order to reduce their need for accommodations in the future.
Now, I’m not here to come out in favor of one approach over the other. They both have value. The problem is that the vast majority of resources go toward accommodation, and very little time, attention, or money gets devoted to remediation. And I think that’s a shame. This approach to supporting learning differences reflects our culture’s fixed mindset at an institutional level.
We know that the growth mindset is the scientifically accurate view of human ability, and we know that when we cultivate a growth mindset in students, they do much better in the long run.1 But when we take students with learning differences or other academic struggles and only give them accommodations without putting any energy toward remediation, we are basically sending them a message that says, “You’re broken. You’re deficient. So you need these supports in order to keep up.”
Instead, if we emphasized remediation (while still providing accommodations as appropriate), we would be sending a very different message: “You’re struggling, but you can improve. You’re capable of growth, and we’re going to work hard to make that growth happen.” Struggle makes you stronger, so some degree of struggle is necessary for growth. School is supposed to be hard, and the purpose of accommodations is to make it appropriately hard so that students don’t get discouraged and slip into a downward spiral of avoidance.
For that purpose, accommodations provide much-needed short-term support, but unless these are coupled with long-term efforts that build skills and strengths, they are likely to just create dependence. It’s hard to strike a balance between the short-term and the long-term, but we can’t fall into the trap of always letting what feels urgent get in the way of doing what is most important. And I would argue that long-term growth is the most important goal, which means we need to make remediation a priority.
For example, a student who has difficulty focusing – perhaps an ADHD diagnosis – might benefit from academic accommodations, such as extended time for assignments, but the student also needs to learn how to combat the urge to procrastinate. They might also benefit from pharmacological accommodation – stimulant medication – but pills are rarely offered alongside skills: organization, time-management, and techniques for managing distractions. Lifestyle changes that promote better brain health, such as exercise, getting better sleep, and healthy eating also help remediate ADHD symptoms.2 Furthermore, focus is a muscle, so deliberately training the brain to focus through practices like yoga or mindfulness meditation can lead to long-term improvements.3
Dyslexia certainly makes reading more challenging, so academic accommodations are highly appropriate to improve short-term outcomes and give dyslexic students a hand keeping up with their classmates. But it’s also essential to teach active reading skills, such as the 3 P’s, to grow their abilities. And, as Greg’s personal story makes clear, when parents read with their kids – even in high school – they become stronger readers.
Lastly, in the world of executive function, parents often accommodate for their children’s underdeveloped skills by basically doing everything for them: all the planning, all the remembering, all the deciding, all the troubleshooting. Kids do need parental support – scaffolding – as they learn executive function skills, but overparenting inhibits growth. As kids grow up, they need to receive less and less support so their brains will be motivated to develop strengths and skills. If you want to remediate underdeveloped executive function, the two best options are to actively model your own executive function processes and to give your kids lots of responsibilities, such as chores.
The difference between accommodation and remediation is really what sets Northwest Educational Services apart from traditional academic tutoring. Tutoring is often seen as an accommodation – extra help given to students who need it. Tutors help students get their homework done and pass tests, but they don’t teach broader skills that foster independence and self-efficacy. By contrast, we are academic coaches, and our focus is on building up students’ strengths. We do support short-term needs, but we also facilitate growth whenever possible because we know that remediation matters too.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
He writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
2 Nigg, Joel, Ph.D. “Beyond Genes: Leveraging Sleep, Exercise, and Diet to Improve ADHD.” ADDitutde: Inside the ADHD Mind. May 9, 2019.
3 Herbert, Anne, and Anna Esparham. “Mind–Body Therapy for Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” Children. May 4, 2017.