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Presuming Competence as a Path to Inclusive, Contextualized Work with Youth

Early in the fall term, our YMEJ seminar read a brief article by NPR’s Melissa Prax called “The Impact of Foster Care on Students’ Education.” In the article, Prax mentioned the story of Harold Sloke, a teenager who entered South Carolina’s foster care system at the age of 12 and ended up attending a dozen high schools before graduating. The sheer number of schools that Sloke attended is shocking. Moving (even once!) can have a major impact on a student’s ability to feel supported and to believe in his or her ability to progress academically, socially, and emotionally. That said, what sticks out to me even more is how much that progress can be hindered or supported by the educators, caseworkers, and other adults in the student’s life.

Sloke’s explanation that a lot his caseworkers believed he “would never graduate, so they kept passing (him) along, and (he) kept getting into trouble” reminded me of another article I’ve read recently, written by a student and his teacher. The student, Jamie Burke, is in high school and has an autism diagnosis. As his verbal speech is very limited, he communicates with technology known as facilitated communication. He and his teacher, Biklen, relate the concept of presuming competence in students with diagnosed or perceived disabilities, which is as it sounds – the practice of presuming a student’s capabilities, rather than presuming deficits associated with diagnoses or perceived differences. They are careful to note that this does not “require the teacher’s ability to prove the existence or validity (of that competence) in advance; rather it is a stance, an outlook, a framework for educational engagement” (Biklen & Burke, 2006, p. 168).

My personal background and interest in Critical Disability Studies and inclusive education has led me to consider how that stance may be taken up when working with court-involved youth. The notion of presuming competence seems to fit well into the discussion of how educators, caseworkers, caregivers, and other stakeholders may work with students in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. As Sloke’s explanation suggests, the adults around him perhaps presumed failure rather than success. That presumption likely makes it easier to see certain behaviors (whether physical, emotional, or related to school work) for their surface value, rather than probing into the deeper reasons behind those behaviors to work with the student in making a plan to change them.

I’m left considering how a broader educational framework of presuming competence could support students who experience frequent moves, rough transitions, abuse, and neglect. While counselors and advocates are critical to supporting these students and presuming their success and capabilities, how can we move toward an inclusive framework that emboldens all people involved in these students’ lives to contextualize their challenges and presume their progress? What does inclusion look like, and how is it even understood, in the juvenile justice and foster care systems?

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