When Professionals are ‘Incompetent’

I was struggling significantly with the unfathomable behaviour of Peter’s head teacher until a friend reminded me about a thing called unconscious incompetence – and then it all fell into place.

With unconscious incompetence you don’t know what you don’t know.  This described many of Peter’s teachers, his SENCo and head teacher nicely.  I particularly love this description of it:

“You are blissfully ignorant: you have a complete lack of knowledge and skills in a specific area, and you’re unaware of this. Your confidence therefore far exceeds your abilities.”  (reference here)

Oh how I longed to tell them that their confidence in the subject of Special Educational Needs far exceeded their ability…..

Whilst this may feel rather (ok, very,) uncharitable of me, bear with me and I will explain.

Peter had a very experienced NHS child psychologist from the age of 5.  She carried out home, school and clinic based assessments, as well as cognitive assessments.  By the time Peter was 6 she was able to give his school a lot of information to identify areas that he may need support with.  She was willing to support school staff in what ever way was necessary to ensure that his anxiety was managed and his social communication needs supported.   “What is your problem?” I hear you ask.

Peter’s biggest ‘barriers to learning’, it turned out, were his teachers.  They were completely unaware of their lack of knowledge in the fields of anxiety and neurodevelopmental disabilities (autism, dyslexia and sensory processing in our case). They were convinced he was N.O.R.M.A.L.  This lack of awareness was THEIR ‘barrier to learning’ too.  They threw away a golden opportunity to enhance their knowledge and skills in autism and to be able to support Peter’s ‘hidden’ disabilities.

We all have areas where we are unconsciously incompetent.  With some humility, an open mind, a willingness to learn and so on, we carry on learning.  As a ‘professional’ this type of development is essential to good practice, in my view. 

This diagram is my take on the ‘conscious competence ladder’.


I was incredibly naïve when Peter was 5 (and 6…7…8…).  Thinking about it, the penny didn’t really drop for years.  I was confused, frustrated and worried about Peter.   I was used to working in a multi-agency team where we all valued and enjoyed the benefits of different specialists working together and learning from each other.  I just assumed primary school teachers would have a similar ethos.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

By the time Peter was 9, he was admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit with school related trauma (detailed here).  The teachers’ determination to ignore medical advice was seemingly a mistake.  Yet still school staff remained resolutely entrenched in their world of unconscious incompetence.

He had been diagnosed by a multi-professional team at age 7.  Now at 9 and very ill, he was re-assessed by 2 of the most senior child psychiatric (Tier 4) teams in the country, in addition to our own local Tier 3 team.  All those assessing him were clear and consistent – he has autism, sensory difficulties and so on.  6 weeks after his admission to hospital his record explains ‘school think Peter is fine’.

Just pause and take this in.  STILL school staff remained unconsciously incompetent. ***Insert swear words of your own choosing here***.

Unconscious incompetence

  • The person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area.
  • The person is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in the area concerned.
  • The person might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill.
  • The person must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin.

(the reference is here)

I wonder now if this could help others to at least be less bemused and distressed when someone who apparently has a degree and a senior job has no clue what-so-ever that they are talking utter nonsense.

Of course nonsense coming from someone in a position of power and authority is a dangerous thing so shouldn’t be talked about flippantly.  Nonsense from teachers and social workers, has the power to wreck family lives and there are examples in SEN forums all over the country that demonstrate this.

I notice that some authors have suggested a 5th stage to this model – whereby a person develops skills to help “to recognise and develop unconscious incompetence in others”.  There is a link here if you have the headspace for it! the (the reference is here)

Posted by Peter and Lily’s Mum

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11 thoughts on “When Professionals are ‘Incompetent’

  1. Reblogged this on Thistleyroses and commented:
    Well worth the read. And even the very best professional can be unconsciously ignorant. My GP for example though through his reaction and my reaction to it he became consciously ignorant and went on to do in depth research on the subject. I do feel though that teachers need more support and training in the psychology and mental health issues as well as developmental disorders to ensure all children are supported as they should be.


  2. Social workers are the most immediately dangerous with this, living in cloud cuckoo land of believing they can fit every child into their tick-boxes and ignore medical and clinical diagnoses that explain things which they would rather attribute to harm or neglect. They believe they have the qualifications to ‘diagnose’ attachment problems which are totally in-valid in ASDs as per the research. Way too many professionals working wholly outside of their sphere of expertise and refusing to realise this, believing they know best. Probably cannot abide a parent who comes along with the answers and sometimes resort to malicious referrals to cover-up their own inadequacies.


  3. My heart sank reading this. You and your children have been put through the most appalling time, and I’ve only just started reading this blog.

    We are going through this and I cannot understand why or how this can happen. But it is, and we’ve not realised it at first, and not understood how for about 4 years.
    The devastation it has wrought on my child and our family is so deep and so infathonable.

    We will be changing school, and we are talking of specialist independent schools – both current and the future. You cannot change their minds, and there is absolutely no point in reasoning with them, or correcting them or complaining about them. The only way to protect yourself and your children is to remove yourself from the situation.
    I’ve likened it to the bullying term ‘gaslighting’ but that’s not quite right, but your blog gets closer to how it feels for me.

    Sending you love and strength, and thanks.


    1. Thank you. You now only recently I was thinking about the parallels with gas lighting. And yes there really is nothing effective that can be done it seems. However, i have learnt so so much these last few years and I honestly think that the most ignorant of staff are stuck in the same place they were years ago. Digging away at the hole they make themselves! I am glad I have learned what I have learned at least!


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