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The term deficit implies that something is deficient or, in other words, not good enough. Viewing students through a deficit perspective, means that they are measured against an average or norm and their performances are quantified. As teachers, if we consider students with any kind of (dis)ability or challenge as being, ‘below average’, we will always see them as, ‘not good enough.’ As you read and learn more about the deficit perspective, you will be encouraged to think critically about the dangers of deficit thinking and about how to use alternative approaches.


Read the two dialogues between teacher Ms. Lapena and one of Kim’s parents. When you are finished, record or discuss your answers to the following questions:

  • Which approach do you prefer?
  • What effects each approach might have on Kim’s academic and personal development?

Teacher: Hello, my name is Ms. Lapena. Please have a seat.

Parent: Thank you, it’s very nice to meet you. Kim has told us all about you.

Teacher: That is very nice to hear and it’s nice to meet you too. Today I would like to talk to you about Kim’s
performance in the classroom.

Parent: Good. I would like to hear about that.

Teacher: Let’s take a look at Kim’s last test scores. Kim is doing very well in Math. She may even be above grade level in several Math subtopics. However, Kim is below grade level in her literacy skills. We would like to spend more time working with her on to improve her literacy skills to help bring her up to grade level.

Parent: Hmm… That is slightly worrisome. I noticed that Kim was struggling to read along with me when I am reading her bedtime stories. Do you think we should maybe do a dyslexia test?

Teacher: That might be useful so we can offer Kim extra time with tests. However, I think the most important thing is to read as much as possible to get Kim closer to the average grade level range.

Parent: Okay. I will discuss this with my family and we will begin reading more with Kim on a daily basis. Are there any books that you can recommend?

Teacher:  Here are a few that you can borrow if you like. They are above Kim’s reading capabilities so Kim will need
support with the vocabulary. Can you help Kim with that at home?

Parent:  Yes, we will try our best.

Now take a look at Scenario 2:


Teacher: Hello, my name is Ms. Lapena. Please have a seat. It’s so nice to have the opportunity to speak with you. Kim talks about you all the time.

Parent: Thank you, it is very nice to meet you. Kim has told us all about you too.

Teacher:  That is very nice to hear. Today I would like to talk with you about Kim’s development and hear some insights from you about how you think she’s doing. I want to make sure that she feels good about school. I also want us to work
together to  help Kim be successful this school year.

Parent: Good. I would like to hear more and I am happy to help in any way that I can.

Teacher: Kim is a very active learner and works very well with her peers and independently. We are happy to see how much Kim is developing in the different subject areas and the inquiries Kim brings into classroom discussions.

Parent: Kim has always been a fully engaged with what she is learning and she has always been very social and friendly. At home, we call Kim the connector, as she always brings people together. But how is Kim doing academically?

Teacher:  We want to challenge Kim more in Math. Until now, Math has been rather easy for her. It wouldn’t mean extra work but it will be more challenging for Kim than she is used to. We believe she can handle the challenge but we want to hear what you think and what you think Kim will think about this.

Parent: We think she can handle the challenge too and she will be excited that you see her skills in Math and want to help her accomplish even more.

Teacher:  That’s so good to hear! Thank you.

We also have a Language Arts challenge for Kim. We really want her to enjoy reading more. Right now we are working with her to find more enjoyable books for her to read so she will practice more and increase her literacy skills. If she reads more, her literacy skills will develop more naturally and she will develop a lifelong love of reading. Maybe it’s just that she doesn’t enjoy reading at school as much as she enjoys reading at home. What are your thoughts about that?

Parent: Yes, we’ve noticed that she doesn’t tend to read much at home and when we read her bedtime stories, she often chooses not to read along with us. Maybe when you find some books that she loves, you can help us choose some books to borrow from the library so we can encourage her to read more at home. We can also take turns reading pages when we read her the bedtime stories, unless you think that might be too much pressure.

Teacher: You are probably right. Let’s start with the books first and then after a while, you can try getting her to read some pages with  you.

Parent:  Okay. So all in all, she is doing well?

Teacher:  Definitely. Kim is on the right track to reach her potential and we are there to support her with that goal.

In the scenarios above, you can see the difference between a deficit perspective and a student-centered, asset-based approach. The deficit perspective reflects the idea that teachers aim to support students in filling the gap between their “deficiency” and the norm. On the contrary, a teacher who uses student-centered approaches is equally focused on the assets and potential of each student and includes the  parents and the students themselves in their action plans.

Current educational theories suggest that all individuals are unique and learn in ways that are, to varying degrees, particular to them. In the past twenty-five years, science has elucidated upon the great variability of the human capacity to learn yet our
educational system is designed around the idea that most people learn the same way.
(Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014).

In many schools in the United States, and other countries around the world, it’s common practice to quantify learners by their
performance and therefore for many students, by what is missing from their performance (Bryant et al., 2020).

This, in turn, affects students’ perceptions of themselves. Listed below are just some effects of this kind of deficit-thinking:

  • Half of all learners in a classroom achieve below average results (Bryant et al., 2020).
  • Students with disabilities are seen as deficient or ‘less than’ their peers (Bryant et al., 2020).
  • Increasing evidence of inequity in teaching, learning and achievement (Valencia, 2012).
  • A culture of exclusion (Lombardi, 2016).

It is important that teachers have high expectations of all their students. In one of many similar studies, an NCES study of tenth-grade students who were set high expectations by their teachers demonstrated that these students were three times more likely to finish college than the students whose teachers had lower expectations (Kauffman & Bradbury, 1992).

The mindset and practice of having high expectations for all students directly contrasts the deficit mindset, in which some students are identified as deficient and need support to make them average or normal.

Many negative effects can result from teachers, staff and parents having a deficit perspective. Nonetheless, it is still very common for stakeholders in education to use this approach. The deficit model is difficult to discard as it has been in our education system for a very long time. It’s particularly harmful for students with (dis)abilities as they would often be regarded as deficient compared to
students without (dis)abilities.


  1. What might be some benefits of the deficit model (for teachers, schools and educational companies)?
  2. Why do you think this model has been used for such a long time?
  3. In what ways might you and your mentor teachers or colleagues have had a deficit mindset? Can you think of any





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