Beware of Small Buckets

In June 2004, my adopted daughter Rose received not one, not two, but three letters of commendation from United States senators. “It has come to my 
attention that you have been selected to participate in the 2004 Youth Leadership Forum… This outstanding achievement demonstrates your proactive 
attitude towards your education,” wrote Senator Ron Wyden. “I believe there is nothing more valuable than a good education. Your impressive record 
indicates you share that view.”
To appreciate my (then) foster daughter’s accomplishment, one must consider how little others expected of her when she was young. In a written report 
about Rose, dated June 6, 1995, the clinician stated that Rose had “borderline cognitive functioning, language disorder, and history of adjustment 
disorder with somatic complaints.”

In July of the following year, a second evaluation prompted by the State of Oregon Children’s Services Division stated that her Axis II psychological 
diagnosis was Borderline Mental Retardation. It was about this time that a psychologist explained the small-bucket theory to me. I was told that one might 
imagine the brain as a bucket, and educational services as being poured into the bucket. For children with a “small bucket” it would be a waste to pour in 
extra resources because the bucket would just overflow. The energy would be wasted on such a child.

While such comments may not be overtly expressed in formal proceedings, they affect individual belief systems that determine which interventions may 
be offered to which students. This, in turn, affects the goals that may be developed for the child’s written Individual Education Plan (IEP). As a legal 
document, the IEP determines the student’s legal right to request accommodations, as well as the school’s legal responsibility to provide for a child’s 
individual educational needs. The effects of written impressions, opinions, and diagnoses have far-reaching results for a child.

I was undeterred by the psychologist’s explanation that Rose had a small bucket. I continued to advocate for the school district to provide supportive 
services to mitigate the impact of early neglect and abuse in her family of origin. In October that year, a mental health clinician determined that treatment 
for the abuse and neglect experienced in her birth family was “contraindicated due to Rose’s low intelligence”. Services were withheld. In addition, 
criminal prosecution of the perpetrator of abuse did not occur because the report indicated that Rose’s cognitive abilities could render her an unreliable 
witness. Therefore the abuser was never prosecuted. For years, Rose worried about why he had not had to go to jail for what he had done.
In October 1997, an evaluation indicated that she had difficulty generalizing, though she appeared to benefit from stability in our home environment and 
was “demonstrating promising skills”. In February 1998, her attorney pressed for another evaluation. It indicated that Rose had made steady cognitive 
growth. Tests now showed her to be in the average range of intelligence.
Her sixth-grade educational report states that Rose’s special education teacher rated her as “functioning [at] right about the level at which her most 
current intellectual assessment would predict her to be performing”. The special education teacher recommended that she not receive educational 
support in middle school because her cognitive deficits (“small bucket”) would not allow her to benefit from the services. I opposed the teacher’s 
decision. After some discussion, the school psychologist agreed, and Rose was provided academic and social support through middle school. She 
continued to struggle socially but made good academic progress.
Rose was tested again before she entered high school. She had been receiving special education and social skills support in school, despite a number 
of psychological reports indicating that she could not benefit from them. In May 2003, the WIAT-II demonstrated that her full scale IQ had increased by 
almost twenty points. Rose was well within the normal cognitive range. The school district then qualified Rose with a learning disability based on the 
discrepancy between her cognitive ability and academic achievement. She entered mainstream classes with appropriate academic accommodations 
(extra time to complete assignments, note-taking assistance, and reduced length of reading assignments) and graduated with a grade point average 
above a 3.2, including one honors class.
When Rose was retested using the same standardized tests in her senior year, she again fell into the mid-normal IQ range, with relative strengths above 
120 in two subcategories. Despite multiple standardized tests that indicated she was not a good candidate for educational intervention, she 
demonstrated the ability to receive and integrate supportive services, and to demonstrate significant cognitive change. Evaluators may vary in their 
theories about whether Rose actually made such cognitive strides, or whether her affective state improved over time to the degree that she was better 
able to demonstrate her cognitive abilities.
Newer neurological research indicates the brain has far more plasticity and resilience than formerly believed. If Rose had been parented by someone 
willing to accept the small bucket theory, the writers of those early assessments might have prevailed. Rose would have gone without important 
educational services that helped her develop her intellectual potential. In turn, her ability to use internal language to manage her affective (emotional) 
states, particularly those with triggers to past trauma, would have been hampered. Rose’s long term ability to develop healthy relationships, maintain 
employment, and effectively parent would have been more difficult. The neurological resilience and subsequent progress she demonstrated would not 
have been possible without the services she received. The writers of her educational and psychological evaluations surely did not intend to restrict her, 
but their reports would have limited services she received if I had not been a strong advocate for her.
The power of an evaluator or clinician’s words to encourage or discourage educational and social support directly affects a foster child’s progress in the 
moment and into perpetuity. Diagnoses and labels can be helpful to understand current limitations and access needed services, but they should not 
prevent opportunities for the child to benefit. I sometimes hear people say a foster or adopted child has fetal alcohol syndrome or reactive attachment 
disorder as if that explains everything about the child, or as if that precludes the child from having the potential to make incremental progress. 
Professional opinions should be not act as a life sentence for the child.
“Your selection [in the 2004 Youth Leadership Forum] is a distinct honor, and you should be very proud of this accomplishment,” wrote Senator Gordon 
Smith. None of this would have been possible if I had believed the limitations that early evaluations suggested. Instead, Rose’s bucket is overflowing with 
confidence and compassion for others. She proudly attended the leadership conference at Western Oregon University, and has gone on to become an 
independent young woman who is a strong advocate for herself and others.