By: Edward Fergus 
Deficit-thinking, a common bias-based belief in the education field, is rooted in an ideology that explains academic performance by blaming individuals or groups for the conditions they find themselves experiencing. This type of thinking promotes the idea of cultural deficits in groups and discounts the presence of systemic inequalities that result from race-based processes, practices, and policies.

Examples of Deficit-Thinking in the Classroom

An unfortunate, yet common, example of deficit-thinking in today’s classrooms concerns low-income and racial/ethnic minority students. The effects can be devastating to these students because those on the receiving end of deficit-thinking beliefs are already at a disadvantage based on perception. Imagine if you were a student of color living in a low-income community and you heard statements such as:

  • Disadvantaged students don’t have the ability to succeed in school.
  • Students of color from disadvantaged homes lack initiative.
  • Students of color should assimilate to succeed in mainstream American culture.
  • The values and beliefs shared by those in disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to go against school values and beliefs about what makes up a good education.

These statements exemplify the type of thinking that directly contributes to disproportionality. To a deficit-thinking educator, these statements serve as “reasons” for a school to give up on certain students, or to engage in a reductionism that fails to see the whole child – categorizing students as “problems” and referring them to special education without pausing to ask further questions, leading to disproportionality in special education.

To reverse the cycle of disproportionality, educators need to recognize deficit-thinking —and take action to interrupt it.

Four Steps to Correct Deficit-Thinking

In the book Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity, I propose an activity designed to shift deficit thinking in just four steps:

  1. Download the Shifting Deficit-Thinking Worksheet.
  2. Congregate in a small group of two to four and spend 15 to 20 minutes discussing deficit-thinking phrases and how to identify deficit traits. This will help you recognize commonly stated deficit-based thoughts and define how these statements create a deficit trait.
  3. Combine two of the small groups for a discussion on their understanding of deficit-thinking. This enables idea sharing.
  4. Provide staff with “homework” assignments or extending learning opportunities. Examples of exercises I have seen school leaders provide include:
    • Three-by-ten dialogue: In this exercise, an educator identifies one or two students who consistently demonstrate behavior issues – then spends three minutes for 10 consecutive days asking these students about their interests, afterschool activities, dreams, etc. This helps educators to see these students as children, not as a “problem” in class. The dialogue affirms each student’s personhood, enabling teachers to adopt a whole-child mentality, and to be empathetic and understanding to situations outside of school.
    • Seeing the everyday deficit language: At least twice a week during a two-week span, teachers choose a space to sit for 15 minutes and listen for language used by adults when interacting with children. After each encounter, educators will document some of the language and date it was used. This activity is intended to assist instructors listening for deficit-coded language.

Applying the Activity

The activity can help educators in scenarios such as this, which I provide as an example in Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity.

A middle school teacher conducted a lesson on comparing and contrasting using Venn diagrams. Writing“U.S. Citizen” in one circle and “Illegal Immigrants” in the other, the teacher asked the students to describe each group.

In this scenario, the teacher may not necessarily subscribe to a deficit ideology but did allow the students to share their perspectives without shifting the conversation – a missed opportunity that enabled deficit-thinking but with tacit reinforcement of the students’ own bias-based beliefs. So, what could the teacher have done differently?

Educators in situations such as this bear the responsibility of redirecting deficit-thinking. One way to redirect is to guide students toward taking genuine interest in others – seeing them as whole persons. For example, the teacher could spend time encouraging students to ponder the fact that every person is hardwired to desire success, and to help students understand that growing up in some places can be very challenging. The “extra lesson” time is well spent, because time allocated to impromptu social-emotional learning (SEL) enables educators to guide young minds to think with empathy.

The example above is one approach a teacher could employ in the classroom when students demonstrate deficit-thinking.

When it comes to addressing their own deficit beliefs, a good place for educators to start is by distinguishing the person from the behavior—for example, when a child acts badly, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is “bad.” Pausing to reflect on the possible factors that led to a  negative behavior (e.g., trauma, difficult upbringing, etc.) can ensure students receive appropriate services – and mitigate the risk of disproportionality in special education.

Asking for Help Is a Strength

Identifying, and correcting deficit-thinking biases can be a challenge — and educators often discover that assistance is valuable. FullBloom, Catapult Learning’s parent company, offers districts and individual schools a flexible support for educators to address deficit-thinking at the school or district level, including but not limited to:

  • Workshop bundles like the SEL Plus series address Equity, Cultural Proficiency, Growth-Mindset, learning environment, and more.
  • Professional learning modules focused on School Transformation and Building a Culture of Achievement.
  • High-impact coaching  with research-based strategies and data analysis right where you are, when you need it.
  • Special consulting sessions with an expert in overcoming significant disproportionality. If interested, please contact [email protected].

To learn more, schedule a call with Catapult Learning today.