This is something I’ve wondered about for a long time. Why is it that when students are unable to meet academic expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student can’t do, but when a student is unable to meet behavioral expectations we typically consider it an issue of what the student won’t do?
Now, I know that is an overgeneralization, but I do think our collective outlook toward behavioral challenges is very different from academic challenges; should it be?
When a student can’t add fractions, write an essay, or shoot a basket we typically react in a supportive way; we identify something the student can’t do and intervene with a variety of secondary or tertiary instructional strategies. If they can’t do it we teach them.
However, when a student misbehaves we often assume that it’s an issue of compliance; that it is a matter of choice or won’t do. Is it possible that some behavioral issues kids present are can’t do issues; that they actually don’t have the social skills, support, or circumstances necessary to act in a way that is expected in class or within the school? If we mirrored the instructional strategies we use for academic deficiencies with behavioral deficiencies would students learn more appropriate, pro-social behavior? This year, all around the world, Kindergarten students are learning that raising your hand is a pro-social way to access adult attention. They are not born with that skill so teaching it must be possible.
As a school administrator I learned to ask a very simply question whenever a teacher referred a student to me as a result of their behavior: From your perspective, is this a ‘can’t do’ or a ‘won’t do’ issue? While it’s not always obvious, most teachers are able to make a best-guess (based on their experience with the student) as to which one they suspect it is. Won’t do means the student is fully capable of behaving appropriately but they are choosing not to; can’t do means the student, for a variety of reasons, may not be capable of behaving in the way that might be expected. For some students, for example, sitting quietly through a 60 min. assembly might be asking too much of them. That doesn’t mean they will never be able to sit through an assembly. It just means we have to have reasonable expectations given the existing limitations the student might be currently dealing with.
I don’t think can’t do issues should be dealt with as discipline issues, even if the behavior is disruptive. If we believe there is a skill missing, I think we would be much better served teaching the student what the appropriate pro-social behavior within the given context would look like.
I think won’t do issues are issues of student discipline that should be dealt with through the school’s discipline policy, practice, and/or routines. That doesn’t mean punishment; the most effective discipline policies are instruments of support and inclusion, not removal and isolation.
By asking ourselves the simple question – is it a won’t do or a can’t do we will immediately be focused on the proper kinds of interventions necessary to help the student improve. When neither the teacher nor I were sure, we always deferred to can’t do; there is no rush in applying any kind of discipline practice to a situation. The absolute worst case scenario is to discipline a student for something you find out later to be a can’t do. I think this one simple question will help guide you to make more effective and efficient decisions when it comes to supporting our students who demonstrate challenging behaviors. Once you make the distinction you will be much more able to drill down to the root of the problem.
That’s what I think…you?