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Can’t Versus Won’t

In rereading some of my favorite special educator books (as I do every summer, hoping to glean new insight) I got stuck on this one statement.

Please remember to distinguish between won’t (I choose not to) and can’t (I am not able to).

from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm

The most dangerous assumption a parent, teacher, caregiver, or therapist can make is to assume that the child WON’T do something. Unless you are that child or have some God given talent to read their mind, you do not have any way of knowing that a child is choosing not to do something over not being able to do something. For example, you are in China, you are being asked to get a red apple from the local fruit stand. You don’t speak Chinese. You make your best guess at what you are being asked to do. You bring back a banana, hopeful that you are right. Instead you are told you are wrong, berated and sent to time out for NOT doing what you are told.

I understand this example is extreme, but I made it to make a point. In this example the problem was not with your willingness to comply, but rather with your inability to complete the task. Put more simply, you were not able to do the task, you didn’t choose not to do it.

When you make the assumption that a child WON’T do something, you are drawing your battle line in the sand. Your approach to the situation may come across as combative, a behavioral approach, as opposed to a problem solving one. It is ALWAYS safe to assume that each child is doing the best he or she can at that given moment. Hypothesize why they CAN’T complete the task.

When you make an assumption of CAN’T this leads to creative problem solving and analysis of the needs of the child and the details of the environment. The child is taught to view self objectively and ask for help and seek solutions. Making the assumption of CAN’T leads to an effort to take the point of view of the child into account and an make an attempt to see the world from the perspective of the child. Any change may lead to loss of skill, causing the child to look like she or he is not trying. Part of our responsibility as parents, teachers, therapists or caregivers is to help the child recognize their variability of performance and how these change in different situations.

Ultimately we need to change our mindset and erase WON’T as an option. Think the best of the child, pull out your compassion and your skills as their parent or therapist to help them in new environments and navigate difficulties to promote successes. Soon WON’T even be a consideration. Soon all you will see are the ways to help the child see CAN’T as an opportunity to be creative.

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One Comment
  1. July 27, 2010 | Reply

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