Archive for February, 2014

Habits of Mind: Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision

Quick programming note: I am on the cusp of finishing the coursework in my doctoral program, which means that from here on out, my dissertation is the last thing between me and a funny hat and three more letters after my name.  That project will be taking up the majority of my free time for the foreseeable future, so I will likely only be blogging once per month (as opposed to my regular twice) for a while.  


This post is part of a series on sixteen “Habits of Mind” put forth by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick as being “necessary for success in school, work, and life” (Costa & Kallick, 2010, p. 212).

Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision: Be clear!  Striving for accurate communication in both written and oral form; avoiding overgeneralizations, distortions, and deletions.

I think anyone who works in the special education field long enough develops fluency in a second language comprised entirely of acronyms.  Between IEP, FAPE, PLAAFP, LRE, ICS, SLD, ADHD, ODD, BIP, FBA, CBA, WISC, BASC, and countless others, I’m convinced I could hold a conversation in public with another special educator that would absolutely confound eavesdroppers.

I’m a longtime reader (and big fan) of Jim Gerl’s Special Education Law Blog, and last year he posted a footnote from a court decision that read, in part:

One suspects that regulators and bureaucrats love such jargon because it makes even simple matters cognizable only to the cognoscenti and thus enhances their power at the expense of people who only know English. Nevertheless, acronyms have so invaded IDEA practice that this judge, like others before him, is pretty much stuck with having to use them.

Jim then posed the question of whether the use (or overuse) of acronyms is an ethical issue in special education.  I absolutely believe it is, and I am absolutely guilty of being on the wrong side of it at times.

Every profession has jargon; it’s a shorthand that people who know the ecosystem use with others “in the know”.  I don’t ask my behavior specialist to conduct a functional behavior analysis; I ask her for an FBA, and it’s fine because we both know exactly what we mean when we use that term.  But that use of jargon can also be exclusionary, and while I believe it’s OK to use in that professional shorthand capacity, we must be doubly aware of our language choices when working with folks who do not live in “our bubble” in order to create an inclusive, welcoming environment.

Like I said, I’m hardly innocent.  I’ve become so accustomed to using that shorthand that I may use it when speaking with parents in IEP meetings, for example, when referring to ICS (In-Class Support) vs. OCR (Out-of-Class Replacement) classes.  I’ve been stopped and asked to clarify or explain myself, and while I’m happy to, I am disappointed in myself that I had to put someone in a position where I was so unclear they needed to stop me and ask for an explanation.  I’m sure it makes them feel excluded to some degree, which is never my intention, but is nevertheless the result.

Language should facilitate communication, not hinder it.  Jargon is OK to use when we are communicating with people who know the language.  When we are not, however, it is imperative that we shift linguistic gears and stop using acronyms unless we are 100% sure that everybody in the conversation knows what they mean.  If we can’t be sure, use plain English.  I try to be a self-aware, reflective professional, and this is an area I can improve upon.  At the very least, “forthright explanation of services” is an explicitly stated part of NASP’s professional ethics code for school psychologists, but you don’t need to see it in a formal document to know that you can’t have inclusive, team-oriented interactions unless everybody is speaking the same language.


Costa, A.L. & Kallick, B.  (2010).   It takes some getting used to: rethinking curriculum for the 21st century.  In H. H. Jacobs (Ed.), Curriculum 21: essential education for a changing world (pp. 210-226).  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.