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What changes when we presume competence?

Updated: Aug 13, 2022

How do we treat our students differently when we think about them as COMPETENT learners?

What changes in our selves and our students when we actively presume competence? Research suggests that “individuals are more likely to manifest intrinsic motivation when they believe themselves to be more competent” (Deci and Ryan 1985). So what does that mean?

It means that how we talk about our students matters in how they perceive themselves and, consequently, how they perform. But what actually happens?

We change how we speak to and about our students.

When we know better, we need to do better. If we're really going to shift our thinking about our students, we need to take a look at the language we use to describe them to others. How often have you heard someone describe a student as "low-functioning"? Or maybe you've used those words yourself. Think about the words that pop into your mind when you hear "low functioning." Are any of them descriptive about what our students actually can do?

When we approach our students from a lens of presuming competence, we shift the focus of our lens onto their strengths. What things do they do well? What things can they accomplish with support? When we use a strengths-based model, we focus on what the student CAN do and what they are trying to achieve with support.

Does this mean we ignore the other needs our students have? It doesn't; but it does help us put our energy into providing support instead of making pre-emptive strikes on behaviors that haven’t even happened yet. A strengths-based approach helps us meet our students with an open mind to really assess what their needs are and see how we can best support them.

We are less likely to unintentionally restrict the opportunities we provide to them.

When we hear or give descriptions of our students that focus on their deficits and what they can't do, it impacts our perceptions and predisposes us to bias. Imagine reading a description of a student that describes them as having severe autism, refusing to follow directions, constantly stimming, and displaying aggressive behaviors.

If that’s the description I hear, I’m definitely not presuming that student is a competent learner - in fact, my mind is probably already thinking purely in terms of behavior with little regard for academics. And since I’m less likely to view them in my mind as a competent learner, I’m also less likely to treat them as a competent learner. I am, however unintentionally, allowing my bias to restrict the opportunities I offer to them. And that’s dangerous.

The risk of presuming incompetence is that we speak too little to our students, depriving them of the known benefits of a language-rich environment. The risk of presuming competence is that we speak too much to the student, which (if we're wrong about our students) does the least amount of harm.

So what happens if we change the way we describe our nonspeaking students?

We effect change in others' perceptions.

How we speak to and about our students matters. What we say, and how we say it, becomes the accepted norm for the ideas people hold about our students. If we describe and treat our students as incompetent learners, we are projecting that image for others to view as well.

And when we change our language and perceptions, wonderful things can happen.

We open doors wide for our students to succeed.

Going back as far as 1968, researchers have studied how positive teacher expectations have influenced student outcomes positively. And the converse is true as well. Knowing all this, it’s easy to see why presuming competence is the best and brightest path forward for our students and ourselves!

We become more joyful and fulfilled educators.

In this time of historic teacher shortages and epic burnout among educators, changing your mindset and presuming competence in your students is the perfect first step toward rejuvenating your teaching.

Let us help you reclaim your joy and refresh your energy for teaching and supporting the nonspeaking students in your lives.

Join the next session of our online course!

1 Comment

Aug 14, 2022

Thank you for sharing this wonderful reminder of the important of how we speak of our nonspeaking students. I hope we all begin the schoolyear with a shift in mindset.

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