Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Internet Special Education Resources
Special Education & Learning Disabilities Resources: A Nationwide Directory

Black and white thinking: Developing the middle ground

By Deb Browne, MS, CCC-SLP Brehm Preparatory School

Some folks live in a high-contrast world; they perceive and react to life in a black and white way: good/bad, happy/sad, enemy/friend, kid/adult. This type of thinking can pose real problems for the individual who thinks in absolutes, as well as anyone trying to work with them.

Let's call them Black and White Thinkers (B&WTs). Who are they? They are found among folks with learning disabilities -- such as language and executive functioning disorders -- those on the autism spectrum, and others including children from families with addiction issues. An adolescent with an expressive language disorder may not have the vocabulary to describe the middle ground; a student with Asperger's syndrome may not get the concept of a graduated scale. For example, a kid with autism may consider someone to be a friend or not. The concept of different levels of friendship and the gradual building of trust may be unknown. Perhaps worst of all for the student with an LD is the perfectionism pursuant to black and white thinking and the self-condemnation, which may follow. B&WTs often think they should be doing everything "right," because if it's not right (read perfect), it's certainly got to be WRONG. In this way, black and white thinking may underlie some of the refusals and difficulty initiating that we often see in our population. So learning, which involves first not knowing things and gradually learning them while making mistakes along the way, can be an excruciating process for B&WTs. Starting a writing assignment, for example, can be overwhelming to the point of paralysis.

Two main things need to be trained: the concept of gradual change and the vocabulary fitting specific situations, which builds on that concept. First is to help the B&WT perceive the concept of a graduated scale, levels, steps, processes, etc. There are numerous ways to make the concept concrete and establish a metaphor for reference. Examples include: speedometer (can't go from one to 100 in a quantum leap); day vs. night (view the in-between: dawn or sunset); a glass filling with water (empty gradually, changing to full); downstairs vs. upstairs (take the stairs, stop partway); even an actual grayscale in Photoshop could be used for those kids into graphics or photography.

Choose a metaphor to which your child may easily relate, and may fit the situation you first want to address. Depending on the age of the student and cognitive level, you may use the real items, drawings, or just conversation to develop the graduated levels concept.

Many adolescents seem to think the simple act of turning 18 will make them an adult and capable of independence. Here at Brehm, we often use the image of a staircase to help a student realize the steps (skills, trainings, accomplishments) to either being ready for college, a specific career, or just plain being "independent."

On the drawing, at the bottom step we label their current grade level and at the top of the staircase, the goal. Then we encourage the kid to brainstorm what they think may be needed, including a driver's license, all the classes remaining for graduation or college requirements, and self-management skills (getting themselves up on time and taking meds independently). Sequencing can come into play as you go, indicating what steps would come ?rst, next, etc. This visual tool and the concept also can come in handy as a reference to them for why you are trying to get them to do any of the above! ("Well, this is one of those things that will help you become an independent person.")

To help kids see there are different levels of closeness in friendship, a graphic of concentric circles (Schwartz, L., & McKinley, N. [1988] Daily communication [pp.13]. Eau Claire, WI: Thinking Publications.) is often used, literally showing that some people are "closer" to the individual, who is represented by the center circle.

In all cases, language -- labels for the levels -- facilitates learning and creates the mental space between the extremes. Just as Eskimos have some 40 words for different types of snow, additional vocabulary can help B&WTs better "see" the differences they need to understand. On the friend graphic, the outermost circle is labeled "superficial contacts," the next is "acquaintances," then "confidants," and then closest to them are "intimates." It is important for kids to realize -- especially in our Facebook world -- that it is inappropriate for someone to move immediately from a superficial contact to an intimate without passing through the stages of building trust.

Such graphics and concepts may also help those who have difficulty with transition. Not typically thought of as a difficulty related to black and white thinking, transitions involve adjusting to change. The steps of moving from one setting to another may be broken down into the component parts, which together may constitute a gradual adjustment.

Speedometer and thermometer metaphors are often used to help kids process emotions, especially anger. In a simple therapy session, they are encouraged to think of any terms for anger, and to write one on each of 10 post-it notes. (Browne, D. [2009]. Language of the middle ground. Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists & Audiologists, 19(31), 5.) These are then arranged from the lowest level of anger, say "irritated," to the highest, perhaps "rage." The intent is to help the student see, and thus expand, the space between being a little perturbed versus being really mad. At the same time, we discuss physiological cues as well as which anger management strategies may best be employed at which levels of anger. For example, the student may realize when they move near rage, they may not trust themselves to use a verbal anger management strategy (see related article by Brehm Associate Director Dr. Brian Brown), but may be able to use the strategy of leaving the room or deep breathing.

Parents and educators can then point out whenever a process or graduated scale is encountered, which will help the kid generalize the concept to the many instances we come across in life. Possibly most important for all of us to realize is that learning itself is a process of gradual change. We sometimes see students frozen in what looks like noncompliance when it is actually the fear of not doing something perfectly right away. Learners need to realize that mistakes are part of the process of learning. Teachers could highlight the building of knowledge and skill versus the items that are WRONG. As parents, you may help your children greatly by recognizing the steps they are taking, the "successive approximations," toward accomplishing anything, including managing their own behavior. If you can tolerate their mistakes with grace, they will be more inclined to accept their own struggles as part of a path -- rather than a failure.

Deb Browne, MS, CCC-SLP, has been a speech therapist at Brehm Preparatory School for 11 years. She holds a Master of Science Degree in Communication Disorders and Sciences (1999) and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism (1979) from Southern Illinois University. Contact Brehm at:, by phone at: 618.457.0371, or via email at:

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


Educational advocacy, learning disabilities advocacy     Return to ISER Home