Presume Competence

This is the third post in my three-part Inclusive Education: 2020 and Beyond series. The series is part of my CPCO Special Education for Administrators inquiry through which I am examining 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. 

For years, he was just the mischievous, freckled-faced boy down the hall. Running away from class, arms flailing behind him, with a speedy educational assistant chasing him down the hallway. Everyone knows this little guy. During assemblies, he rocks back and forth while lying on the gym floor. Most often, his participation in school activities is brief and fleeting. As an EA holds his hand during transitions within the school, his red curls bounce off his forehead as he flips and flops his head. Classmates greet him ever so gently. Rather than acknowledging them, he prefers to run his tiny fingers up the corrugated paper that comprise the bulletin boards on the hallway walls.

One day when he was in early primary, I watched him, in a fit of frustration, systematically throw his hat, mitts, coat and boots down the hallway. Unable to properly convey his needs with words, his frustration gave way to a tempest of responses ranging from tossed classroom items, ripped worksheets, and broken pencils. A mixture of pure energy and exuberance, he was a much loved and protected member of our school community.

Over the years, I watched this boy grow and mature, inching up from the primary hallway, to the junior division, then to the final door and his grade 6 year in my classroom. Throughout, as his capacity for oral language developed, the rate of incidents requiring intervention declined. During the passage of time, I came to see that his educational assistant was always within arm’s reach. She walked beside him. Sat next to him during work, snack and lunch times. When he was seated with his peers, she was a constant factor.

I came to see that to him the message of the support he constantly received year after year was “I need support because I can’t do this on my own.” And for those who were watching the message was “He needs support and can’t do this on his own.”

When he reached sixth grade, I, as his teacher, changed that.

As he readied to head off into the bigger world of high school, I recognized he needed to become more independent. Awaiting him were the demands to contend with locker combinations, movement between classes, negotiating with peers in the cafeteria…and more.  So, in the seating chart for my class, I put him front and central. In close proximity to me…very distant from the previously always available educational assistant. She was there, but in the background, available if needed.

Certainly, there was a period of adjustment. But, he adjusted, proving to himself and others that he could do things on his own. With greater freedom, his peers and he interacted more naturally. Away from the educational assistant, he tested and found the boundaries of his own autonomy and independence. And when the time came, he, ready and willing, headed off to high school.

In our work as educators, our primary goal is to create autonomous, productive members of society. This goal holds true for all students. Each is capable of doing and being more.  Every single one of them is a challenge to the classic definitions that reside in their student files. 

This truth is readily evident in students with Autism. The many misconceptions held about a diagnosis of Autism lead some educators to inappropriately apply a stereotype to an autistic student that is based on what the educator has read, seen in media, or experienced with previous students assigned the profile. 

We must honour the individual personalities of our students and see their strengths. There is great value in looking beyond the ministry definitions of ASD to see the person in front of us. When we open our eyes the many ways he defeats stereotypes everyday become evident. 

The classic stereotypes have been disproven by almost every student I have worked with who fits an Autism profile. Contrary to stereotypes they often make eye contact, show emotion, engage with trusted educators and even give hugs. If you believed all that you had read about Autism, you might not ever look beyond the other mitigating factors. That’s why we must always presume the competence of these learners at all times.

Of particular concern are the students who are considered non-verbal or have limited use of functional language. For instance, a stereotype that equates an Autism diagnosis with a limited intellectual ability is especially dangerous since non-verbal students are often found to be quite bright and capable of learning. Being non-verbal does not render a student less able to learn unless otherwise documented by an assessment of intelligence. We just need to find a way for that student to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and knowledge.

A common misconception is that the Autistic spectrum is linear. The assumption inherent in the misconception fails to take into account the variations in a student’s profile, personality, mindset, and overall ability. Not all strategies work for all students with a specific profile. Although some lend themselves well to certain diagnoses, the best practice is to know the student. 

Seems overly simplified, but it’s not.

My favourite depiction of the broad range of strengths and needs is this:

This misconception, in my opinion, is one of the most harmful and damaging to student achievement and the expectations of educators.

The story of Carly Fleischman is an important one to lend to this discussion. Carly’s story of living as a non-verbal girl with Autism was first documented by CTV News when she was 13 years old. The story breaks down the stereotypes and stigma related to her profile. 

In adulthood, Carly and her father wrote a book entitled Breaking Through Autism and created a video, Walk a Mile in My Shoes, to capture her experience of Autism. 

For a number of years, Carly hosted a Youtube channel named Speechless. She interviewed many famous people using her communication device a voice-generating app on her iPad.

The project for which I’m writing these essays and, indeed, the past two school years of teaching under the stress of a pandemic, are making me question several teaching ideologies that I have held central for years. Among them, the classic statement “What’s good for some is good for all?” Is it really? My reflection on bias and stereotypes has led me to question this statement. To me that is the ultimate assumption that we have made for years. 

I now see the way that the “I” in IEP is essential to this discussion. It encapsulates the need to individualize our programming based on student needs unique to one learner. What’s good for some, might, in fact, be harmful to others. 

Each child we encounter teaches us. Regardless of the way they look, their profiles, or identifications no two individuals on this vast planet are alike. It is the uniqueness of each that helps us understand the need for appropriate strategies. From that understanding we engage more deeply with the IEP process. Doing so we realize the importance of tailored programming for meeting the specific needs of the child that is in front of us. It becomes apparent that tools and strategies are in no way interchangeable or well-suited to every student despite them having a similar diagnosis or profile. 

In closing, my hope is that you, by reading my essays, have come closer to understanding that the only assumption we, as educators are empowered to make is this–given the right tools and strategies, this one student can be successful. Presuming the competence of every student in our care reflects this belief to each and enables them to see their own strengths and talents. Their success and autonomy follows. Hallelujah!


Breaking Stereotypes about Special Needs 

Common Portrayals of Persons with Disabilities 

Deficit Model Thinking 

How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias 

Implicit bias 

Implicit Bias Explained – Perception Institute 

Moving away from the deficit model 

Overcoming Deficit-Oriented Approaches to Teaching 

6 Things Students with Learning Disabilities Are Tired of Hearing

Special education excels at stereotypes

Stereotypes About People with Disabilities 

TED TALKS LIVE Short – Unconscious Bias 

When the Classroom Feels Hostile: How stigma, stereotype, and labels can affect kids with learning disabilities