Danger, Proceed With Caution

This is the second post in my three-part Inclusive Education: 2020 and Beyond series. The series was part of my CPCO Special Education for Administrators inquiry through which I examined barriers to inclusion, particularly unconscious bias and factors associated with ability, race, and class. I am especially interested in the way teacher beliefs about various exceptionalities affect student progress in school. 

It’s Friday, June 25, 1999. My classroom is cleaned and school supplies are packed up. My first year of teaching is complete. I bid farewell to my students yesterday. Sending them off to pool parties and the youthful freedom of summer vacation. Remnants of the past year are now mere lingering memories, as hopes for the upcoming year begin rising in my heart. 

In the school office, a class list for the year ahead sits in a mailbox with my name on it. I retrieve and unfold it. Excitedly I scan the names. Most of the names on the list, I recognize. 

There’s Rachel, a student I enjoyed chatting with in the school hallway. Previously, I taught all her older siblings. Each was on an IEP, with a learning disability diagnosis. I wonder whether Rachel will need classroom supports similar to the ones her siblings needed. 

Kenny has behavioural issues. This past year, he often walked with me during recess.  I know Molly, a remedial student. Every day I briefly worked with her during my remedial time. She’s a sweet girl who’s slow to process and has difficulty with academic tasks. From the few interactions I previously had with her, I surmise she has an intellectual deficit. 

As for Jared, a boy in the classroom across the hall, well, he’s autistic. Prone to loud outbursts, he gets support from an educational assistant. He seems to spend a great deal of time out of the classroom. During seatwork, Jared’s educational assistant sits directly beside him. Having never taught a student with Autism at the time, I conclude he is not independent and requires intensive support at all times. I begin to worry about my own skill level to program for this student.

Reading the names, I attach bits of information and abbreviated memories to each. As I do, my excitement about the year ahead wanes. I wonder, how can I possibly manage these new students and meet their disparate needs?

At this moment—two months before any student on the list sets foot in my classroom—I have already made assumptions about each student. Assumptions that a single, simple glance at a printed name on a plain sheet of paper trigger.

Today, some 23 years later, I know to stop making hasty conclusions—based on emotions and sensations, not empirical data—about my not-yet students. Perhaps the assumptions won’t be harmful, but, maybe, just maybe they might dampen my expectation about what’s possible for them…or me. It is so easy, yet quite dangerous to make assumptions based on previous, limited encounters with students. I must be more mindful of my assumptions, own them, see each for what it is and exercise caution. Lives and futures are at stake.

Continuing on, I think about the danger of assumptions and stereotypes based on certain diagnoses. Especially blanket statements about specific student learning profiles. Such as:

  •  All students with learning disabilities require assistive technology  
  • All students with developmental disabilities have limited ability for independence
  •  All students with ADHD benefit from fidget toys and standing desks
  • All students with autism have intellectual barriers or don’t make eye contact.

Obviously, the statements above, while applicable to some students some of the time, are not applicable to all students all of the time. 

Although it is human nature to draw from previous experiences and assumptions when facing a new situation or encountering a new student, doing so isn’t always the best approach. Most often it results in a pre-existing belief being affirmed rather than countered. This is not surprising because confirmation bias is a less demanding cognitive process than seeking out objective facts, processing information, and interpreting it to support or reject possible actions to take. In education, a tendency toward confirmation bias often results from following the status quo. Continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done. A course of action that perpetrates historical inequities in a system. 

I believe an important early step for countering confirmation bias in teaching is accepting that each and every student in our care is a unique individual. Who, although similar to other students I may have taught or encountered, requires specialized strategies and accommodations in order to learn and grow. Each strategy and accommodation should be based on a specific diagnosis and unique to a student’s profile and circumstance. This is not possible without the acceptance that each student is a spectrum of abilities, capacities, and needs, with no spectrum being the same. Moreover, when every student is treated uniquely, there is no bias to confirm.

I’m reminded of the saying, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism”. What a perfect reminder that a diagnosis, placement, or support working well for one student is unlikely to work well for other students. Believing that they will work well, can be problematic, limiting, and possibly dangerous for students and educators. For that reason, my primary objective is and must remain to know the student in front of me.

Educators are hearing the term unconscious bias more often these days, especially during discussions about race, class, and educational outcomes. A bias favours one group over another. Since humans inherently favour some people over others, it’s not surprising that well-meaning educators might subconsciously favour one student over another student and that race, class, and/or educational ability may factor into such favouritism.

I know that in my life, success and advancement often result from the support and opportunities I receive. Sometimes support and opportunities likely result from Inherent Bias that’s part of the everyday actions and systems of the society of which I am a part. Although the favouritism that benefits me might seem invisible, nonetheless it’s there. And it’s there when an educator unconsciously privileges certain beliefs that devalue one student over another. It was there as I looked at the list of students, and possibly there when each name was added to the list. They’re the deeply rooted assumptions that insidiously feed bias.

Now, as I write this piece, I am stepping back, regrouping, and refocusing on the beliefs and actions that characterize our educational system. With the benefit of awareness and proximity, I see that biases perpetuate inequality in educational experiences for some students. And realize that I and every educator in the system have roles to play in ensuring every child is educated well. 

The root of most biases toward persons with disabilities resides in the deficit and medical models that predate the field of special education. Despite changing times, models favouring ableism and deficits, linger. They remain significant parts of the societal norms influencing educational practices and propagating implicit biases that in turn foster invisible, systemic barriers to inclusion. The perpetuation of out-of-date stereotypes fosters inequities in opportunity for persons viewed as flawed and weak, thus outside the norm.

That this is the case is apparent in the way special education is too often seen as a place down the hall where people with disabilities go. Rather than being seen as a shared practice within which all educators in a building or system share responsibility for educating all students all the time. Ableism privileges the former view, in which the non-disabled are protectors, guides, and role models and the disabled are helpless, dependent, and excluded. 

Fostering true inclusion necessitates replacing the deficit model one-and-for-all with a model that values the diversity of all individuals. In which each individual contributes unique talents and gifts to a community regardless of whatever capability or diagnosis may be ascribed to them. And, educators provide the appropriate support and instruction to make this desired outcome commonplace in classrooms, schools, and so on.

When the deficit model of disability perpetuates unconscious biases among teachers, it maligns their expectations of exceptional learners and contributes to their stigmatization. A stigma that’s not caused by a diagnosis or identification but by the assumptions of society. 

It is the responsibility of every educator to continuously examine the biases and barriers they create in classrooms and schools for all students to learn and achieve. Such examination requires addressing the explicit and implicit messages to exceptional students about their relative positions in our system. It means no more other. No longer different. Never separate. Instead, fully contributing, respect-worthy and welcome member of the system. With these changes come a greater acceptance and acknowledgment of disability as a natural part of society. 

Anne Donnellan’s work on teacher efficacy and belief systems introduced the principle of the “least dangerous assumption”. The principle holds that “assumptions ought to be based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect of the likelihood the student will be able to function independently as an adult” (1984). Although Donnellan intends the principle apply to individuals with intellectual disabilities, arguably, by challenging our assumptions to assume competence, her principle is applicable to all students. Supporting the belief that when accommodations and modifications are made to correct levels all students are able to learn and succeed. In this way, Donnellan’s work supports the case that teacher expectations influence student learning and achievement and high expectations should be set for all students.

Building on Donnellan’s work, Cheryl Jorgensen provides five reasons to presume competence a) human intelligence is multifaceted, b) instruments and assessments for measuring intelligence can be flawed, c) communication skills and high-quality instruction are needed before accurately determining ability, d) presuming incompetence could be harmful and, e) even if we are wrong in our assumption towards competence, it is not as harmful as the alternative (2005).

Donnellan and Jorgensen push us to see all students as being capable of learning and success. To consider programming as an essential means for ensuring their success. And not conflating IQ with destiny and functional communication skills with the capacity to contribute. Again, we must move beyond the historical deficit model of disability.

So, what does assuming competence entail? 

Presuming competence means speaking to a student’s strengths and needs, rather than the student’s functional or developmental level. To not predict that certain students will not acquire certain skills or abilities because they have a certain learning profile. Further, it’s believing each student deserves to be spoken to directly not through others who may be supporting the student. It is honoring the human dignity of a student by sharing sensitive information privately with others, not in front of the student. Always assume understanding and respect privacy. And providing each student with a sense of agency and voice in the making of decisions about the student. The overarching principle is that all students have an inherent right to all of the above as well as being educated alongside age-appropriate peers – and equally so.

Although identification and diagnosis help to inform teaching practice, the requisite labels resulting from each bring with them the baggage of inherent stereotypes. Finding the balance between label and stereotype, support and bias involve planning and programming for what a student can do, rather than what the student cannot do. Assuming the competence of every learner is always prudent. Referencing formal reports and diagnoses while planning the programming for a student, such an assumption involves truly believing the student has the capacity to access the tools being recommended and that accessing them will contribute to the student being a successful learner. 

Certainly, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is a roadmap for a student’s success. For sure a diagnosis can inform an IEP. But, understanding how models, biases, and stereotypes may affect a student’s capacity to succeed is also important.  As are appropriate accommodations and instructional strategies. However, none will have the intended effect unless the educator involved with the student truly believes the student can succeed and takes the appropriate steps to enable success by being a teacher, learner, and sometimes, advocate.

In my early days as a teacher, I participated in a session on Nonfiction Reading Strategies, led by Tony Stead, in which he introduced the RAN Chart for assisting students with reading comprehension. I share the chart here.

I share it now, because all the years later, I see that the approach intended for readers is also applicable for teachers approaching new students, and yes, the beginning of year class list of students. When making initial contacts, observing, and opening up the Ontario Student Records, it’s important to reflect upon: “What I think I know” and “What I wonder.” Not assuming anything to be real until it becomes fact. And to understand assumptions for what they are—possible misconceptions. To get to know learners. Track new information we gather along. Truly understand and know the student who is before me. And consider my biases.

In education, as teachers we are also learners, and therein lies the path towards equitable and inclusive practice. A realization that I too have much to learn and to face in my own assumptions and misconceptions about the learners in my charge.

In order for all students to succeed, much systemic change must occur. Please join me in accepting that the necessary change starts here, now, and within each of us. By embracing each student as a unique, capable, worthy, and lovable person with much to contribute to the common good. 


Donnellan, A. M. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption. Behavioral Disorders, 9(2), 141–150. https://doi.org/10.1177/019874298400900201

Jorgensen, C. (2005). Least dangerous assumption: A challenge to create a new paradigm. Disability Solutions, 6(3), 1, 5–9. Retrieved from http://archive.brookespublishing.com/documents/Jorgensen.Least%20Dangerous%20Assumption.pdf

Johnson, D. R. (2015). The power of high expectations for special education students. CEHD Vision 2020 Blog. Retrieved from https://cehdvision2020.umn.edu/blog/high-expectations-special-education/