Presumed competence, in my experience, is a term that gets a lot of buzz. But not a lot of traction, certainly not in IEP meetings.

But if we’re going to have strengths-based IEPs and focus on student strengths, then presuming competence is a part of this.

presume competence in children
When you presume competence in a child, amazing things can happen!

Presume Competence Definition

“Presume competence” is a concept commonly used in the field of education, particularly in inclusive education and working with disabled individuals or diverse learning needs. It is a fundamental belief that individuals should be treated as capable and competent, regardless of their apparent limitations or challenges.

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When we presume competence, we assume that individuals have the ability to learn, make decisions, and communicate, even if they may require support or accommodations to do so effectively. It is a shift away from preconceived notions or low expectations based on labels or stereotypes.

Presuming competence involves recognizing and respecting the inherent worth and potential of every person, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and providing opportunities for meaningful participation and learning. By doing so, we create an inclusive and empowering environment that encourages individuals to reach their full potential and contribute to society.

When used appropriately and often, promotes a positive and respectful approach that values diversity and ensures equal opportunities for all individuals, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

As I am typing out these words, they sound so foreign. It’s been a long time since I met with an IEP team that was 100% all in with presumed competence.

How do I know? Listen in the IEP meetings. If you’re hit with a lot of:

  • “Yeah, but….”
  • “But whatabout…”
  • “Well, I don’t think that will work because….”

Do any of those sound familiar? When I repeatedly hear those phrases, that tells me that the team is not focusing on the child’s strengths. And that they are looking for reasons NOT to try something, instead of trying it.

Keeping in mind of course, the school staff does most of the IEP writing. So if they’re coming to the table with a bunch of stuff that won’t work, or warrants a lot of “yeah, but….” then that’s on them.

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presume competence
Presume Competence: All children are capable of accomplishments!

Benefits of Presumed Competence

Presuming competence offers several benefits for individuals with diverse abilities and disabilities, as well as for society as a whole. Here are some of the key benefits:

  1. Empowerment: Presuming competence empowers individuals by recognizing and affirming their abilities, skills, and potential. It fosters a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy, enabling individuals to develop confidence, take initiative, and actively participate in their own education, decision-making, and life choices.
  2. Enhanced Learning: When individuals are presumed competent, they are provided with appropriate educational supports and opportunities to learn and grow. This approach promotes a positive and inclusive learning environment, where students are more engaged, motivated, and receptive to learning. It allows for individualized instruction and adaptations that address diverse learning needs, leading to improved educational outcomes.
  3. Communication and Relationships: Presuming competence in communication means recognizing that individuals with limited verbal skills have thoughts, ideas, and feelings to express. By providing alternative communication methods and supports, it allows for effective communication, meaningful interactions, and the development of strong relationships with peers, teachers, and the wider community.
  4. Equal Opportunities: Presuming competence promotes equality and equal opportunities for individuals with diverse abilities and disabilities. It challenges discriminatory attitudes and practices that limit access to education, employment, and social participation. By focusing on abilities rather than disabilities, it opens doors to inclusive education, inclusive workplaces, and inclusive communities, ensuring that everyone has a chance to thrive.
  5. Breaking Stereotypes and Stigmas: Presuming competence helps break down stereotypes and stigmas associated with disabilities. It challenges negative assumptions and biases, promoting a more accurate understanding of individuals’ capabilities and potential. This fosters a more inclusive and accepting society, where diversity is valued and individuals are judged on their abilities rather than their disabilities.
  6. Advocacy and Rights: Presuming competence supports the advocacy efforts and rights of individuals with disabilities. By recognizing their inherent worth and potential, it strengthens the case for equal rights, access to services, and opportunities for full participation in society. It promotes a shift towards inclusive policies and practices that respect the dignity and rights of all individuals.

Presuming competence leads to greater inclusion, empowerment, and the realization of the full potential of individuals with diverse abilities and disabilities. It creates a more inclusive and equitable society where everyone can contribute and thrive.

Examples of Presumed Competence

Here are a few examples to illustrate the concept of presuming competence:

  1. Inclusive Classroom: In a classroom setting, presuming competence means believing that every student, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, is capable of learning and participating in the educational activities. Teachers provide appropriate supports, accommodations, and individualized instruction to help each student succeed, rather than making assumptions about their capabilities based on their labels or disabilities.
  2. Communication: When interacting with individuals with limited verbal communication skills, presuming competence means assuming that they understand and have something to say, even if they cannot express themselves through speech. Alternative communication methods, such as sign language, picture-based communication systems, or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, are used to facilitate their expression and enable meaningful communication.
  3. Decision-Making: Presuming competence extends to decision-making processes. For example, in the case of IDD individuals, presuming competence means involving them in decisions that affect their lives, such as educational goals, living arrangements, or employment choices. It involves providing information, support, and opportunities for self-advocacy to ensure their voices are heard and respected.
  4. Employment Opportunities: When considering disabled people for employment, presuming competence involves focusing on their abilities and potential rather than solely on their disabilities. Employers create inclusive workplaces by providing necessary accommodations and supports that enable individuals to showcase their skills and contribute meaningfully to the organization.
  5. Creative Expression: Presuming competence also applies to artistic and creative endeavors. For example, in the context of autistic individuals or other developmental differences, presuming competence means recognizing and supporting their artistic talents and abilities. It involves providing opportunities for self-expression through art, music, dance, or other forms of creative outlets, and celebrating their unique contributions.

These examples highlight the importance of presuming competence as a guiding principle in fostering inclusion, respect, and equal opportunities for individuals with diverse abilities and disabilities. By presuming competence, we create an environment that values and supports the inherent potential of every person.

Problems with Presumed Competence

Here are the some common issues I see with the concept of presumed competence.

The concept itself is great. I see a lot of issues with implementation and really getting a team to buy in.

  • Not on Board: The team says they’re on board with believing in the person, but they still have serious reservations. They are anticipating failure rather than success.
  • Improper Support: The mistaken concept that presumed competence is just letting go, letting the person “try the thing” without having proper support in place.
  • No contigency plan: There should be plans, not only for support but for ongoing assessment. If the planned support is not appropriate, what are you going to try next?
  • Being used as a reward: This one is weird but happens more often than you’d think. The “freedom” to try something new and challenging is treated as a reward. Meanwhile, presuming competence in someone should be their right. Not a reward.

Presumed Competence and Your IEP

Applying the concept of presuming competence to a disabled child involves adopting a mindset and implementing strategies that recognize their abilities, foster their development, and provide opportunities for meaningful engagement. Here are some practical ways to apply this concept:

  1. High Expectations: Set high expectations for the child’s learning and development. Believe in their potential and communicate that belief to the child, their parents, and other members of their support network. Avoid underestimating their abilities based on their disability or assuming limitations without giving them a chance to demonstrate their skills. However, it’s important to include the second point here–SUPPORT. High expectations doesn’t mean we just toss the babies out of the nest and hope for the best. The right support must be in place.
  2. Individualized Support: Provide individualized support that addresses the child’s unique needs and strengths. Collaborate with parents, caregivers, and professionals to develop a comprehensive understanding of the child’s abilities, learning style, and communication preferences. Tailor teaching strategies, materials, and accommodations to optimize their learning experience.
  3. Communication Support: Implement effective communication strategies to facilitate the child’s expression and understanding. This may involve using visual supports, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems, sign language, or other communication tools that align with the child’s abilities and preferences. Encourage and value their communication attempts, even if they are nonverbal or require support.
  4. Inclusive Education: Ensure the child’s participation in inclusive education settings whenever possible. Collaborate with the school and educators to create an inclusive classroom environment that supports the child’s learning and social integration. Provide necessary accommodations, assistive technology, and specialized instruction to address specific learning needs.
  5. Strength-Based Approach: Identify and build upon the child’s strengths and interests. Focus on their abilities and talents, providing opportunities for them to explore and excel in areas that align with their interests. This boosts their self-esteem, motivation, and overall development.
  6. Acceptance of Failure: I don’t know a single adult who accomplishes everything they set out to do, the first time they try. Failure is ok. It’s about a support network where we learn from our mistakes so we can do better next time. I see so many kids set up, and the IEP team is just teeming with expectations and “Yeah, but, if this doesn’t work…” they immediately want to revoke that LRE. No! Try more or different supports first.
  7. Collaborative Partnerships: Foster collaborative partnerships with parents, caregivers, and professionals involved in the child’s care. Value their expertise and insights while sharing your own knowledge and observations. Engage in open communication, regularly discuss progress and goals, and work together to provide consistent and coordinated support.
  8. Self-Advocacy: Encourage and support the child’s self-advocacy skills. Help them develop the ability to express their needs, preferences, and goals, and support their active involvement in decision-making processes related to their education, therapies, and future plans.
  9. Community Engagement: Promote opportunities for the child to engage with their community, participate in extracurricular activities, and contribute their unique talents and perspectives. Encourage inclusive recreational programs, clubs, or organizations where they can interact with peers and develop social connections.

Remember that each child is unique, and the specific strategies may vary depending on their abilities, disabilities, and individual circumstances.

Regularly reassess their progress, adjust interventions as needed, and ensure a supportive and inclusive environment that promotes their growth and well-being.

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