TIPP 8: Avoid Deficit Thinking and Deficit Language
In their critique and discussion of trauma practices—in which they raise concerns about the ways that school professionals work with students who have been traumatized—Khasnabis and Goldin (2020) refer to three questions they routinely ask of practitioners:
- What are the systems in my school that are retraumatizing this child?
- Why am I holding the child responsible for the trauma they have faced?
- How do I focus my energies on the child’s assets and capabilities rather than on their failures and deficits?
This last question captures an observation that school professionals often apply a deficit frame to their interactions with students, which causes school professionals to view challenges that arise in the classroom as failures of individual children rather than as systemic problems. More broadly, a deficit model emphasizes what a student does not know or cannot do and also asserts that some students struggle because they lack necessary skills and resources.
The deficit model (also referred to as deficit thinking) is most commonly applied to students with disabilities and students of color; this model originates from racist and classist ideologies that framed oppressed people as deficient. Because deficit thinking is pervasive and implicit, educators must be aware of and work to counteract their implicit biases (TIPP 3).
Khasnabis and Goldin (2020) call on school professionals to remain mindful of the ways in which their language and behavior can reinforce the deficit model. They contend that students are far better served by a model based in strengths and assets, which aligns with content in TIPP 7 regarding the importance of high expectations. Focusing on students’ existing abilities—and, in turn, how they can use those abilities to facilitate their achievement—assists students in building confidence, feeling motivated, and thinking of school as a positive environment.