I am reading Anne of Green Gables to Emma. Three years ago it would not have occurred to me to read her a book that I might have enjoyed at her age. Three years ago I was “reading” picture books to her before bed. Three years ago I did not assume she understood the stories in those picture books. Three years ago I not only did not assume my then eight year old child understood what I read, but I also did not assume she understood 90% of what was being said to her. Because I did not assume she understood I treated her as though she couldn’t understand. I treated her as though what I thought was a fact. Then I learned I was wrong. Not only did I learn my assumptions were incorrect, I began to see how those assumptions caused me to act and treat her as less capable than she actually was. I treated her as though she couldn’t and I didn’t see how this attitude was hurting her. Instead of teaching her to do things for herself, I did them for her. It was quicker, easier…
I wrote a post not long ago ~ Presume Competence, What does that mean exactly? People have a tough time with the idea of presuming competence, let alone putting that idea into action. I get that. I did too. Here was a child, my child, a child we had been told was capable of this, but not of that, a child who was treated by society as much younger than she actually was, a child who, because of her unreliable language did not have conversations with us, did not answer most of our questions, never asked us questions, and so we assumed had little if any interest in such things. We made the mistake of assuming language retrieval issues were indicative of lack of intent and desire. We made the mistake of limiting our thinking and therefore limited our child. We thought we knew, until we didn’t. We behaved as though what we thought was true and our behavior and actions or inactions fed into that erroneous thinking.
I’ve spoken a great deal about the brilliant documentary by Gerardine Wurzburg, Wretches and Jabberers. I continue to urge everyone I know to watch it because it is the best illustration I know of, that explains the concept of presuming competence and what can happen as a direct result of doing so. It is a highly entertaining, moving documentary following two (mostly) non-speaking Autistic men as they travel the world meeting other non-speaking Autistic people who are all far more capable than society believes. Many are in “life skills” programs or work initiatives doing menial tasks like paper shredding and folding towels. They type about their mind numbing boredom and brutal frustration they feel as a result of being treated as far less intelligent than they are.
Presuming competence is an act, it isn’t just an idea. Presuming competence is the single most powerful action we have taken that has directly helped our daughter flourish and grow. Nothing, absolutely nothing else we’ve done has helped Emma as much as presuming competence. When we stopped limiting her with our limited beliefs of what she is or isn’t capable of and began giving her the information and materials she needed, she has taken off. In school she is being taught grade level science, at home she is being taught grade level geography, I am reading age level fiction and nonfiction, she clears her own dishes, cleans them and puts them away. She sorts her own laundry, helps fold it and knows how to make pancakes without assistance. She takes a shower on her own, has learned to shampoo her hair and brush it afterwards. She brushes and flosses her own teeth with minimal support, she dresses herself. When it is clear she needs help learning to do something, we help her, without admonishment, without distress, but instead with the knowledge that she will eventually learn to do it on her own.
Presuming competence does not mean we expect her to know how to do something without support and instruction, it means we assume she can and will learn with appropriate accommodation. This is is a very different way of thinking than either assuming she can’t do something and never teaching her, or teaching her, but requiring her to prove her knowledge over and over before moving on. With reading comprehension we realized we were asking the wrong questions. Often we were asking her to answer questions that were not obvious to the story. When she couldn’t answer, we’d dumb down the reading material and then wonder why she wouldn’t pay attention.
In the beginning, presuming competence felt like a leap of faith. It scared me. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t want to feel the disappointment that I knew I’d feel if I was wrong. It felt like a massive disconnect. But presuming competence is not about my ego, my expectations or anything else involving me. Presuming competence is about respecting my daughter and respecting her process. It is about honoring her. It is about giving her what she needs to flourish. It is about dispensing with what I think, believe and have been told. Presuming competence has nothing to do with my fears of success or failure. Presuming competence is not about me at all. It is all about my daughter.