Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Effects of Presuming Competence

Ms. B is a teacher at XYZ Middle School. She has 32 students of various abilities in her class, including a student with intellectual disabilities. The student with intellectual disabilities has the support of a paraprofessional who facilitates access to the curriculum. Ms. B is about to plan for an upcoming unit on plants. The grade-level learning outcomes require students to understand the structure of plants and plant biology. She wonders if the topic and content will be too challenging for her student with intellectual disabilities to understand. Ms. B is concerned that the student will become overwhelmed and frustrated when presented with such a complex topic. Should she plan for the student to work with a list of science vocabulary words that were targeted for review in a recent assessment or should she plan to modify the unit lessons for the the student so they can participate in the class lessons and learn the same new concepts as their peers? Ms. B wonders what to do. 

We can all agree that the education of students with disabilities must be meaningful, purposeful, and prepare them for a fulfilling life as adults. With a quality education, students with disabilities can develop their self-determination skills which are essential to their future success and well-being (Wehmeyer, 2002). Research indicates that inclusion plays an exceptionally important role in a quality education and positive life outcomes. However, within the context of providing inclusive, equitable learning environments, it’s important to also mention that inclusion extends beyond being physically present in the classroom. Inclusion requires teachers to always presume competence in the student's abilities so that the student can be exposed to a variety of concepts and reach new levels of learning alongside their peers in the general education classroom.

In the first chapter of Instruction of Students with Severe Disabilities, Brown et al, (2019) discuss the instruction of students with severe disabilities. Brown et al., assert that it’s important to begin with an optimistic attitude when working with students. This is reflective of the work of Anne Donnellan. Donnellan proposed that educators presume competence in students with severe disabilities and provide instruction that is not restrictive or limiting. A respected researcher in the field of education, Donnellan put forth the theory of the least dangerous assumption. Donnellan stated, “The criterion of the least dangerous assumption holds that in the absence of conclusive data, educational decisions ought to be based on assumptions that, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently as adults” (p. 141). 

Furthermore, according to Brown et al, (2019), instruction should not just meet the needs of the student’s current levels of performance. It should give the students opportunities to be challenged and grow in their abilities. This model is supported by Vygotsky's highly regarded Zone of Proximal Development theory. In an article titled, The Impact of Lev Vygotsky on Special Education, author Wang (2009) states that, “According to Lev Vygotsky’s theory of Zone of Proximal Development, what’s important to disabled children is ‘what they can do’, not ‘what they are supposed to do’ (103)”. 

In comparison, Tavers and Ayres (2015) write in A Critique Of Presuming Competence Of Learners With Autism Or Other Developmental Disabilities, that presuming competence is quackery. They state that educators should first test and evaluate students using an agnostic attitude and then provide targeted supports and instruction. Then, educators can form their opinions and deliver curriculum based on student evaluation. Tavers and Ayers (2015) repeatedly refer to the use of “pseudoscience” to inform special education practices. 

However, as educators know, assessments and evaluations are snapshots in time of a student's life and should not define the totality of a student’s capabilities and determine an entire curriculum. Henley et. al., (2010) in Labeling and Disadvantages of Labeling, identify numerous consequences focusing on the characteristics of a student’s disability such as the risk of shaping teacher perspectives and expectations. Researchers concur and confirm that, “while teachers’ positive attitudes have positive effects on students’ performance and personality developments, negative attitudes have a negative effect on both the performance levels and personality development of students” (Ulug et al., 2011).

Given my experiences as a full inclusion teacher, I’m a strong proponent of presuming competence. I believe that teacher attitudes have a direct correlation to the outcomes and opportunities that students have in school. For example, because I presumed competence and saw my students through the lens of what they “can do”, I regularly modified grade-level content to align with student ability levels. My students learned the same concepts and had the same learning experiences as their same-age peers. As a result, they remained in the general education classroom for the majority of the day. They were "fully included" in the activities and experiences my class had to offer.

The effects of presuming competence on students with disabilities are far reaching. When teachers presume competence in students with disabilities they plan for the inclusion of students in grade-level content, activities, and learning experiences. This, no doubt, increases the amount of time spent in the classroom with same-age peers which in turn facilitates social connections and emotional development. Presuming competence in students with disabilities is significant to the development of their full potential.


Snell, M. E., & Brown, F. (2014). Instruction of students with severe disabilities. Pearson Higher Ed.

Donnellan, A. M. (1984). The criterion of the least dangerous assumption. Behavioral Disorders, 9(2), 141–150.

Henley, M., Ramsey, R. S., & Algozzine, R. F. (2010). Labeling and Disadvantages of Labeling. UNCW Faculty and Staff Web Pages.

Travers, J., & Ayres, K. M. (2015). A critique of presuming competence of learners with autism or other developmental disabilities. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities,  50 (4), 371-387.

Ulug, M., Ozden, M. S., & Eryilmaz, A. (2011). The effects of teachers’ attitudes on students’ personality and performance. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, 738-742.

Wang, Y. (2009). Impact of Lev Vygotsky on special education. Canadian Social Science, 5(5), 100-103. Http://

Wehmeyer, M. (2002). Self-determination and the education of students with disabilities. ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.


  1. Presuming competence and having a growth mindset are absolutely imperative when designing instruction to meet the needs of all learners! Kudos to you for doing your part to find an access point and modifying instruction for your students. Doing so enables meaningful inclusion to occur! I get so frustrated when I hear teachers say that the general education setting isn't "appropriate" for any given student when they haven't provided any accommodations or supports to help bridge the gaps between what a student is currently able to do and the standards being taught.

  2. This was an incredibly thought-provoking post. The point that educators should "presume competence in students with severe disabilities and provide instruction that is not restrictive or limiting," is incredibly important as we begin to creating a true inclusion environment. Having the idea of inclusion only being physical limits the progress that our students can truly accomplish. Inclusion teachers must understand that our students want to succeed, and we can help them do so with the right mindset and tools at our disposal. The goal should be to help students achieve the least restrictive environment, and to help them thrive.