Is it that they CAN’T or that they WON’T?

When students are struggling, it is key that we identify whether this is a case of “I can’t do it / don’t know how” OR “I won’t / am avoiding”. Do they have the skills? Have they ever been taught? Has the teaching been specific enough or clear and has it been repeated? If we are certain that they understand and are capable (have seen them have success and have given relevant cues to repeat the task), take a close look at whether this truly is a case of not having mastered the skill or simply that they won’t or don’t want to either engage in the task or put in the effort.

To be certain, try this:

Break down the task. Model or demonstrate it. Provide visuals (of steps and outcomes/final product). Write out steps and cues. Clarify any vocabulary or instructions, and make notes on their steps. Practice and repeat with guidance and eventually only supervision. (Head to our free downloads page, and check out our “break it down” tool to give you some direction).

Students come to us with a range of difficulties. Trust me, perhaps we haven’t seen it all, but we sure have seen a lot. Who doesn’t want to take the easy way out or simply hope for the best sometimes? We see this all the time – students skipping steps, not applying full effort or simply avoiding the task or steps altogether. Sometimes they make excuses, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell when it is truly due to a skill deficit and when it is more of a behavioral choice. The waters get even more muddy when we have other challenges at play (adhd, learning disabilities, dyslexia, processing delays, etc.). It is easy for parents and students (and even professionals) to fall into the trap of blaming the diagnosis or using that as a reason for the difficulty in task completion. Do NOT let this happen to you! Pay close attention the the task itself, train the task. If they have had success and have the tools to be successful again, more often than not, the reason for lack of follow through isn’t because they can’t – it’s because they won’t.

If I had to guess, I would describe the distribution of clients we see as follows:

15% need basic EF skills instruction and guidance
45% need BOTH the skills development AND help with changing their behaviors
40% need some EF skills development BUT primarily struggle with behavior change and making good choices

15% of our clients come to us simply needing skills they have never specifically been taught. These clients are generally motivated, apply strategies between sessions, and can run with all that they have learned relatively quickly.

45% of our clients are missing the skills due to lack of instruction and/or challenges posed by a coexisting circumstance/diagnosis which impacts their executive functioning AND also struggle with consistency, self management and behavior change.

40% of our clients have some gaps in executive function skills development which can be relatively easily addressed with appropriate training and tools, but the PRIMARY issue is really behavioral (changing behaviors, consistency, follow through, and applying tools and strategies they know will work).

The biggest influencing factor on behavior change that we have found – and it’s generally no big shock here – is the parental role.

I can’t even count on both hands the number of times I’ve had parents either in tears or beating themselves up in my office throughout the past few months alone. The problem is, as parents, we want so badly for them to get it and know what to do. We also want them to feel successful and to push them. Unfortunately, it can be tricky. When do we push? When do we do it for them? How much do we help? Who is responsible for what?

Think about it. Jot it down.  Decide what the goals are, what it will take and who is DOING what to support them (and also where is the accountability?).

Stay tuned for more blogs coming soon which will help you answer these questions and learn strategies as parents or coaches, professionals, SLPs or educators to help guide you.

For now, my suggestion is to start paying attention. Take time with tasks, and most importantly, focus on accountability and follow through. Help them recognize whether it’s a “can’t” or “won’t” scenario and decide how to manage it.


For more information and access to tools, guides, and other tips, visit us on the web at www.Solutionsforstudentsuccess.com. Or Contact Solutions for Student Success for a free consultation on how to develop Executive Functioning Skills.

Also, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram. We will be frequently posting videos and interviews with practical and easy to implement ideas and strategies, so be sure to visit often!


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