“Can’t do” vs. “Won’t do”

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?

9 thoughts on ““Can’t do” vs. “Won’t do”

  1. Thank you for so eloquently identifying the need for this conversation. You are SO correct. It is time for our profession to be knowledgeable about “can’t do” versus “wont do”. When we blame the student for inability to respond, act, comply in a certain fashion . . . we relieve ourselves of the responsibility of meeting that student’s needs.

    • Thanks Denise. I agree, it’s much easier to blame the student rather than take responsibility ourselves. I think the “can’t do” v. “won’t do” is a way to initially determine who should take most of the responsibility for whatever corrections need to happen. Sometimes it is the student’s fault; sometimes it’s not. While students are always responsible for their actions, we need to understand their possible limitations – not as excuses, but as reasons. I believe we need to be more thoughtful about how we initially react to behavioral issues which will lead us to more productive interventions and responses. Thanks for your comments.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Great post! Are you familiar with Ross Greene’s “Lost at School”? He discusses students with behavior challenges in terms of lagging skills that need to be taught explicitly. Some kids don’t learn them as easily as others and some don’t know when certain skills are called for. Also, it is a mindset that students won’t do something. Usually behind a won’t is a can’t. It could be that a won’t pops up when a part of what is required hasn’t been properly learned yet. Great food for thought here. Thanks!


    • Thank-you Shannon. I have heard of Ross Greene but am not all that familiar with his work…I will be sure to check it out. That’s why I always started with the can’t…it’s usually behind it. I really believe it’s unfair to hold kids accountable for actions they have not been taught explicitly. Not every little thing, but how do you show respect, empathy, compassion, – and what would it look like in various settings and/or situations. Behaviours don’t occur in a vacuum; they occur in a social context that kids need to learn how to read and adapt to.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  3. I agree with Tom Schimmer. I blogged about Ronald Morrish’s Real Discipline program August 2010:

    Morrish said, “The easiest way to think about real discipline is to view it as having three parts. The first part is called training. The second part of real discipline is the teaching component in which we teach children the skills and attitudes for being responsible and cooperative.The third part is called managing in which we provide children with more and more choices as they get older so they learn how to handle independence. Today’s popular discipline concentrates on this part to the exclusion of the other components. What we have forgotten in our rush to provide children with freedom of choice is that adults are supposed to prepare children to handle choices and make sure they are ready. It is well-trained, well-taught children that handle choices responsibly and with respect for the rights and needs of others.”


    • Thanks for the comments Alan. I agree that the role of adults is getting lost in all of the conversations about student-centeredness. Adults still matter – they always will. Training does not mean “obedience school”; it means preparing them, guiding them, and encouraging them to make appropriate choices as they move forward. I am definitely going to check out Ronald Morrish’s program. Thanks!

  4. Great post!

    I also highly recommend the work of Ross Green. In his book “The Explosive Child” he talks about the need to identify kids with social learning disabilities — these are the kids who need help with skill development through direct social skills instruction. A great example of this type of program is North Van’s “Social Responsibility Support Program” or SRSP. It is a half day short-term pull out program for kids who need direct social skills instruction. Definitely worth a visit! I know other districts are also doing fine work in this area as well.

    In terms of supporting behaviour learning in the regular classroom…. A book that I would recommend is “I Won’t Learn From You and Other Tales of Creative Maladjustment”… can’t recall the author… In this book the author explores the importance of protecting the dignity and individuality of the child as a primary intervention. Lots of interviews with kids in that one; terrific perspective building.


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