Presuming Competence in Practice

Jess, a 25 year old with Angelman Syndrome, waiting anxiously for the Mamma Mia musical to begin on stage.

“Presume Competence” has become a mantra of many excellent parents and professionals who are implementing augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for individuals with complex communication needs (CCN). I’ve also experienced some misunderstandings in person and in online groups suggesting that presuming competence is not evidence-based in its idealism. So I’ve been paying attention to the things that people who presume competence do in practice.

Presuming competence is not idealism. Idealism ignores that there are challenges or barriers to overcome. The very definition is that the ideals are often “unrealistic.

Presuming competence is a philosophical difference. It’s a belief in socializing students for courage instead of compliance.

It is more than an ideology because when you start from the mindset that someone is capable and can grow, your actions start to reflect that. There are concrete, evidence-based ways that you can presume competence.

Provide comprehensive, robust AAC early

If children are not developing verbal speech, when you presume competence, you acknowledge that they still need a way to access language. Children typically start saying their first words when they’re a year old. Children who have CCN also need to have the opportunity to access first words, and the opportunity to choose what their first word is. If they’re given a limited AAC system, and they have to work their way up to a larger vocabulary variety, they may not be motivated by the available vocabulary. Give children with CCN the ability to explore, just as verbal children have the opportunity to babble until they can use words purposefully.

Look for success

We see what we look for…and often miss what we don’t. There is quite a bit of research about visual attention. When we presume competence, we look for students to be successful and build on those moments. Recognizing that we are all subject to cognitive biases such as confirmation bias. We look for evidence that agrees with what we already think. Look for the moments where students show you their intelligence. When you look for them, you will find them.

Take the “blame” if the child’s telling you something and you’re not understanding it

Take it upon yourself to be a better listener. If individuals with CCN are taking the time to try to tell you something you can be pretty sure of 2 things: 1. That it’s important. 2. They are trying their hardest and using every tool they have. Make sure that that they know you’re reciprocating that effort.

Have high expectations and provide whatever support is required to meet them. Consider the barriers and obstacles and problem solve to overcome them without placing blame on the child. When you can look at the environment, communication partner, access or activity as the reason for a communication breakdown, you can make changes. If you say that the child is the reason, you haven’t left room for modifications to support success.

Limit physical prompts

Eliminate hand over hand prompting for students who don’t physically need help. Instead of taking a child’s hand and pulling it to the button you think they want, use aided language input or gestural prompts. When you presume competence, you’re giving the individual the benefit of a respectful interaction.

I’ve seen some research to support the idea of using least to most prompting strategies this week, which is exciting! There are links to two studies here and here.

Take a look at this 14-second video.  We had been playing music. I thought she was stuck and having a hard time finding music. I was wrong. If I had hand over hand prompted her to say “music” and then played it, she wouldn’t have had an opportunity to tell me what she really needed.

Click to play

Value individual communication preferences

If your colleague waved to you in the hall as you walked past her, you wouldn’t grab her and insist that she look at you and verbally say, “Hi” to you. If someone chooses to wave to you, you can wave back or you can say, “Hi, how’s it going?” We use universal gestures to communicate, and we accept that as humans in a society.

When you’re trying to teach a student with CCN to greet people, you can presume competence by modeling different options as you greet them, but accepting their nonverbal greeting as you would from any other child. It’s also important to recognize that greetings often aren’t reinforcing for kids. And sometimes, separate from the CCN, kids are shy…especially when they’re put on the spot.

Topics of conversation also vary by individual preferences. Imagine someone at work starting to tell you about their children or a favorite show that just had a shocking plot twist. Would you ignore them? If your second grade niece started talking to you about American Girl Dolls, would you refuse to acknowledge her interest and instead start giving her math problems to solve?

Presuming competence is more than believing that a child is competent of thoughts, ideas, and learning. It is also the practice of making sure people – ALL people – have the right to talk about what THEY want, even if it’s not the topic we planned.


Listen with all of your senses. You know those annoying “whole body listening” posters? The ones that show the child sitting quietly in a desk with a closed mouth and feet still on the floor, hands folded in front of them, eyes looking in the direction of the speaker…yeah, not like that. Listen to understand, whatever that means for you. Watch their movements and look for patterns. Listen to the words they’re repeating over and over. Consider that it may not be “stimming” or a lack of understanding of AAC. Figure out what they’re trying to tell you.

I worked with a little guy in a preschool classroom a couple of years ago, who has since become verbal. He was apraxic and was using Speak for Yourself and able to put 3-4 words together.

One week, I went in to visit and the teacher said, “Every time I hand him the device, the only thing he says is ‘all’ the entire time.” The device was sitting on the bleachers while he was at gym. When I looked at the device history, he had, in fact, said “all” 512 times in the last 10 days.

As soon as he saw me, he ran over to the device, and said, “all.” When I said, “All of what?” he repeated it a few more times. Then he touched the upper right corner of the device where the Babble button (which opens ALL of the words in the Speak for Yourself app) SHOULD have been…but someone had locked it. I said, “You mean ALL of the words!” I went into the app settings and unlocked the Babble feature. He toggled all of the words “on,” smiled at me and said, “all.” I added and modeled, “all (the) words.” He was thrilled…he stopped saying “all” incessantly. His problem was solved.

He tried to get his point across over 500 times before someone was able to figure it out. (The teacher and staff were excellent, and I don’t know if I would have figured it out if he didn’t give me the extra clue. I also have the advantage of knowing the app really, really well:) Isn’t it amazing that he kept trying?

Also, accept that a student may not be able to listen like the cartoon posters. For some of our students, it takes so much focused energy to hold their bodies still, that if they are doing that, it’s unlikely that they’re able to listen attentively.

Acknowledge that People are Complex

There are things that we just don’t know. We spend a lifetime learning about ourselves. It is impossible to know everything about another person.

Presuming competence isn’t about belief in students in the absence of evidence. It is a belief in their right to access the communication to demonstrate their abilities as humans. You’ll never gather evidence without providing opportunity. So when you’re marking down minuses on data sheets, ask yourself, “Is it possible that there isn’t an adequate way for them to show me that they know this?” When you do that, and acknowledge that there are a range of variables between a plus and a minus, you start to problem solve for your student(s) instead of testing them.

Presuming competence is giving students the opportunity to learn literacy, math, science, and history regardless of their disability.

It is providing the chance to build relationships. It’s exposing students with CCN to leisure activities and allowing them to decide if it’s something they enjoy.

Presuming competence gives children a chance to explore and make mistakes without penalty. It gives them time to learn with support rather than testing or criticism.  When you presume competence, you give the child a safe place to fail and the ability to learn from those small failures and try again. It’s how we grow. That growth and the confidence students gain from overcoming challenges gives them the courage to keep moving forward and develop skills to demonstrate their competence.

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