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Shifting Your Mindset from a Deficit Ideology


By Jenny Rea, Ph.D.

Did you know humans typically have more than 6,000 thoughts per day? This surprised me, but I’m not exactly sure why. As a mom to four children under five years old, my brain is constantly thinking about a million things at once. Thoughts such as, “Did I start the dishwasher? Did I pack extra diapers for the baby’s doctor’s appointment? Did I remember to eat breakfast?”

I am certain that if you are anything like me, you too, have had at least 6,000 thoughts (if not more) running through your head every single day. Household chores and work tasks may fill a portion of your head space, but what about real-world problems?

Do you think about these issues?

What about recent workshop participants you taught, who shared with you their fears and worries about the communities they live in, as many have faced physical violence and social injustice? What about the female Service member who came to you just last week and was terrified of going back into her workplace due to the discrimination she had been facing?

I am certain that those of you that are reading this today, are passionate about what you do. Therefore, the individuals that you work with, that come into your life, especially during times of great need, will likely weigh heavily on your mind - consuming many of your thoughts for days on end.

Tackling Real-World Problems

To equip family service providers with the skills to identify barriers that impact a family’s health and well-being and identify opportunities for social justice advocacy in their work, OneOp launched the Military Family Readiness Academy. This year, the MFRA series focused on individuals’ understanding of social justice and equity, including their understanding of privilege and oppression.

In the second MFRA course, “Family Service Providers: Recognizing and Responding to Inequities”, Dr. Alison De Marco introduces the deficit ideology framework and provides ways to move beyond this mindset.

Dr. De Marco defined deficit ideology as a “tendency to focus on individuals’ weaknesses – what they lack – rather than their strengths. It’s a belief system that locates the primary cause of disparities (e.g., test score gaps, graduation rates) within rather than pressing upon the communities experiencing the disparities.”

In other words… De Marco posits:

  • Although we must value the strengths that are inherent in the communities that we serve, the opposite of deficit ideology is not a strengths-based view.
  • The opposite of deficit ideology is a structural ideology (or the belief system that attributes disparities to inequity or lack of fairness/justice). That is, instead of placing the deficit in the individual, we must place the deficit (i.e., the reasons for the disparities) in structures (e.g., organizations). We must look at the systems that have been created that continue to oppress folks with historically or currently marginalized identities.

According to De Marco, we need to start recognizing when this is happening, both by ourselves, but also in our organizations, with our colleagues, and within our communities. Here are a few examples of what is typically said, and how you might shift your language – your mindset if you will.

  1. Instead of saying… “achievement gap”, consider “opportunity gap” – situating it from the individual to the structure.
  2. Shifting from “dropout” to “push out.
  3. Framing from “generational poverty” to generational inequity - This is something that is experienced over time, through the generations, but it is structural, and not a deficit in an individual-based explanation.
  4. And the constant search for individual-based strategies, such as grit, growth mindset, and behavior modification – have the tendency to avoid any real confrontation of the structural barriers or the inequity since their focus is more on the individual rather than the system as a whole.

De Marco concludes the brief lesson by encouraging us to think about the other language examples that we might come across that are deficit-focused versus a more structural framework.

So, what thoughts do you have on a day-to-day basis, and how might you shift your mindset to understand and move beyond a deficit ideology?

Want to learn more?

Today’s blog post provides a small glimpse of what the OneOp 2022 MFRA provides. There is much more content to learn and explore! The MFRA addresses the interactions between engaging a social justice mindset as a family service professional and the ability to support the well-being of diverse families. I encourage you to check it out today! Continuing education credit is available for each course and panel discussion from various credentialing agencies.

This post was written by Jenny Rea, Ph.D., military spouse, and mom of four kiddos under five years. Jenny consults with OneOp’s Family Transitions team to provide free and open-access multidisciplinary professional development resources for providers serving military families. You may find more blogs, podcasts, and webinars from Family Transitions. We invite you to engage with Family Transitions on Twitter @OneOpFTand with OneOp on Facebook.

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This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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