Deficit Thinking in Schools: A Social Justice Issue

By Dr. Kelsie Reed

You can broadly define deficit thinking in schools as a way of blaming the victim.

It involves holding a student, a student's family, or a student’s culture accountable for academic or behavioral difficulties at school. For example, school staff may assume that a student is acting out because they're innately a “bad kid” or because the student's parents “didn't raise them right.”

Unfortunately, research also indicates that educators are more likely to engage in deficit thinking when working with students of color, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students with disabilities, and EL (English learner) students.

This can lead to teachers unintentionally lowering their expectations for students based on factors outside of the student’s control. It also paves the way for inequitable outcomes for students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

One example is disproportionate office referrals of historically marginalized students for suspension or expulsion compared to other students.

Deficit thinking is harmful to education for two reasons:

  •  Educators assume that they can't support the student.
  •  It can lead to educators lowering expectations for the student.

Research shows that when educators have high expectations for students, their students will rise to those expectations. In contrast, when educators hold low expectations for students, students are less likely to succeed.

If you were to ask teachers WHY they thought a student was misbehaving, what types of responses do you think you would receive?

I distributed a questionnaire to 300 teachers from six school districts to examine the relationship between deficit thinking and school discipline patterns.

The six districts each had unique school discipline patterns (some had a history of high suspension patterns, some had a history of low suspension patterns, some had large racial disparities, and others had no racial disparities).

The questionnaire started with a brief prompt asking teachers to think about a student they’ve worked with who has engaged in “disruptive and/or negative” behavior in class. One of the questionnaire items that followed asked teachers to record what they believed to be the “root cause” of that student’s misbehavior.

Results revealed a troubling pattern: 86% of teachers reported a root cause that somehow blamed the student or their family.

   Some examples:

  •  family background
  •  lack of structure at home
  •  domestic issues at home
  •  “The student is seeking attention because they are not getting attention at home."
  •  no parental support
  •  a learning disability
  •  “The father is not present.”
  •  a lack of educational skills
  •  a chaotic household
  •  “The student is spoiled at home.”

You may wonder why some of these root causes are problematic.

For example, if a student has a learning disability, isn’t it somewhat fair to attribute the student’s misbehavior to their disability?

If a student has a difficult home life, isn’t it somewhat fair to assume that the student may engage in problematic behavior at school because of it?

To these questions, I respond, "Sure, it's possible."

But sometimes, the problem does not lie in the root cause we attribute; the problem lies in how we talk about and think about our students because of these root causes.

They may well determine how we treat students and the expectations we hold for them. These deficit-thinking root causes lie in how we frame them. They lead teachers to believe that there is nothing they can do.

If the root cause is out of our control, what does that say about our expectations? And what do we know about the impact of our expectations?

So what about the other 14% of teachers?

I've termed this small minority of responses as “putative malleable root causes,” defined as “root causes that examine the role that school factors play in contributing to and/or causing the problem behavior and can be changed through school-based intervention."

   Some examples:

  •  “We need more social-emotional training for teachers and admin.”
  •  “The student is bored.”
  •  “There are inconsistent expectations from the teacher.”
  •  “The student might not be engaged in the current activity.”
  •  “There’s a negative relationship with the teacher.”
  •  “The student isn’t being challenged enough.”
  •  “The student needs assistance completing work.”
  •  “Teacher/school involvement within teams is lacking.”

Some fall directly within the line of school factors we can alter, while others can be minorly reframed when teachers perceive students. (Note: while responses from the latter could be interpreted in a deficit light, these variables do not place inherent blame on the student.)

If a student is acting out because they're bored, what can be changed about the instruction, content, or delivery of material?

If the student is acting out because they need academic assistance, how can we ensure that the student receives the help they need to prevent misbehavior?

How can we alter our everyday practices to meet the needs of our students?

In other words, rather than associating a student’s difficulties with a “learning disability” or “lack of educational skills,” we need to shift our thinking to consider what supports we can provide for a student with a disability or for a student who struggles academically.

  •  Instead of: “Her parents never taught her how to behave,” try: “She may benefit from more intensive social/emotional, behavioral skill instruction at school.”
  •  Instead of: “He doesn’t receive enough attention at home, so he seeks negative attention at school,” try: “He needs more positive relationships and positive reinforcement at school.”
  •  Instead of: “The content is way over their head, so they act out because they don't understand,” try: “I can modify my instructional techniques and/or the curriculum to better fit their academic needs.”
  •  Instead of: “He has a chaotic home life,” try: “His current school environment is too unstructured for his needs, and he may benefit from more structure.”

Imagine if we did our best to reframe all root causes that blame families or students into root causes that are within our control.

Perception is everything.

Framing is everything.

We may have good intentions when we think about difficulties that arise for students outside of school. But the real question is, when is it helpful to consider the impact of such factors, and when is it harmful?

  • How are we using the information we know about the student?
  • How can we reframe the behaviors we’re observing at school to be strengths?
  • How can we use these strengths to better support our students instead of further marginalizing them?

My research got me thinking about the culture of our schools and how we, as a society, think about problematic behavior. The lack of a relationship between deficit thinking among teachers and school discipline data does not mean that deficit thinking isn't harmful to students.

I argue that it reflects an even more troubling finding: our schools are breeding grounds for deficit thinking.

And it’s not because teachers are ill-intentioned. Our school staff members are not equipped with the tools or capacity to think about strengthening behavior in this way because our larger society does not value it.

This is why deficit thinking is a social justice issue. Our current method of addressing student behavior in schools is exclusionary because we believe that students who engage in misbehavior are “bad” and/or “unable to change” rather than considering how we can support them.

And just like most social justice issues, our historically marginalized students continue to bear the brunt of the impacts of deficit thinking.

So the next time you're working with a challenging student, rather than blaming the student, lowering your expectations for them, or deeming them a “lost cause,” I challenge you to consider the malleable factors contributing to the student's difficulties.

If you think in a deficit light, how can you reframe that root cause into an addressable action? A simple modification of language can ultimately make a huge difference.

Which hypothesis leads you to unintentionally lower your expectations?

Which hypothesis empowers you to support the student?

You tell me.

Photo by Marcelo Jaboo
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