"Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them."
~Lady Bird Johnson

"The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them."
~Dalai Lama

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Assume Competence

I mentioned briefly on my other blog that I attended a fantastic seminar by David Pitoynak about two weeks ago.  By fantastic, I mean paradigm shifting.  His way of thinking is not only inspirational but is immensely valuable in the field of advocacy.

Recently, I took on a new advocacy case involving a child who is experiencing Down Syndrome.  The school assumes that the child will not be able to achieve success through inclusion in the general education classroom.  

In my first advocacy case, a child who was experiencing mild Autism was put in a segregated environment because the teachers and administrators in the school assumed he was not able to achieve the academic work that was being presented.

In both of these cases, the assumptions were of incompetence, and as a result both have the possibility of producing damaging results and negative outcomes.

The first child needs to be around typical peers to experience appropriately modeled behavior and feel the social benefits of inclusion.  The second child needs to be effectively academically challenged, especially in the areas where the child is gifted; this child (as can most children) can and will also benefit from appropriately modeled behavior.  And in both children, their inclusion will not only be individually beneficial, but will also help raise the social awareness and open the minds of their peers to also assume competence.

As children, we don't know that someone cannot do something until we are given proof.  We do not look at someone who is different and assume that he or she is incapable of being a friend.  When we are children, we automatically assume competence, albeit often with a lot of accompanying questions.  

Imagine, if you will, that someone looks at you and based solely on your hair color, eye color, shoe size, or waist dimensions that you are unable to participate in the activities of your peers - simply because of your label.  Imagine if every day, you were passed by for opportunity after opportunity just because of an external variable that you have little to no control over.  If you aren't even given a chance to prove your capability, you will probably doubt your own competence, withdraw, and lose interest.  Your potential will go untapped, and your talents will remain undiscovered.

Now, think about what would happen if everyone was just given a chance.  Sure, it might take a little extra effort from some of the involved parties, but if you assume that there is at least a possibility that success can be achieved, imagine how much the world has the potential to change.  Imagine what could happen if we assumed competence, much in the way our children's peers do, and think about how inclusive we could all become. 

In the seminar I attended, David Pitonyak talked extensively about Assuming Competence, which is also known as the Least Dangerous Assumption.  You can google both of these terms and be given thousands of hits that will give you extensive, eloquent explanations.  

It really should be common sense:  assuming competence helps shift the thought process and focus from the limitations of a diagnosed disability to the possibilities of the person whom is experiencing the effects of a disability.  

I'll try and explain it a little bit better.  

Imagine two circles, one inside of the other.  The larger, outer circle is the person.  The inner, smaller circle is the part of the person that is experiencing the disability.  The small circle can, but shouldn't determine the competence, or ability to perform a task, function, or skill effectively, of the individual.  The small circle is only a part of the big circle.  They aren't one in the same.  The limitations of the disability contained in the inner circle may or may not affect the competence of the person experiencing the disability, the outer circle.  

If you assume competence, you are giving a person the opportunity to succeed.  Does it mean that he or she will always achieve the desired success?  Not necessarily.  But isn't it more damaging to not provide him or her with the opportunity at all?

If I am told no, I want to know why.  If I am told that something is not possible, I want to know if it has been proven.  If I am told that someone cannot do something, I want to know if the individual has been given the chance to try in a fair, appropriately supported environment.  

Assume competence and use that assumption to guide your advocacy.  Ask yourself, the teachers, the administrators, and the decision makers if the child for whom you are advocating can be given a chance to prove that he or she is capable of stepping up to the task.  

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