Can’t Do or Won’t Do – Approaching Problem Behaviors Systematically

Categories: Interventions

It can be hard to remember at this time of year when we are deep in the trenches and the honeymoon period (if you even had one) is long gone – but all behavior is communication. Every single behavior is telling us something and if we can figure out what that something is we will have a much better chance of figuring out how to decrease it. When looking at challenging behaviors that are possibly escape maintained (meaning done to get out of something) a helpful question can be to ask yourself – Can this student not do the work or does this student not want to do the work? Ie. is it a can’t do or won’t do? There is a significant difference in these types of behaviors that will majorly impact the way you respond in the classroom.

Every decision is shaped by the person’s skill and ability to perform the action and the person’s motivation to act or to not act on particular options available. If someone asked me to run a mile, I definitely could do but I probably wouldn’t want to so I wouldn’t do it (won’t do). But maybe you tell me you will give me 100 bucks or a two hour massage – now I’m running. But let’s say you asked me to run a mile in 5 minutes. There is no amount of money or massages you could offer to get me to do that. I physically can’t. In that situation, it’s a can’t do.

Misconceptions about Can’t Do

A ‘can’t do’ problem doesn’t only mean the work is too hard. Something about the environment, the verbal demands, or internal events may be causing the work to be too hard. The student may be distracted and unable to focus. The student may not be feeling well or overly tired or hungry. All of these components could cause a can’t do problem. I can complete a page of math problems quickly and easily in a quiet room but it would be much harder to complete those same math problems while the fire alarm is going off and I have a migraine. Remember how our student’s sensory experiences can increase or decrease environmental events. So make sure to consider the whole situation here.

Misconceptions about Won’t Do

If you are immediately counting out the issue of ”won’t do’ because your student is using some type of token economy or has a system of reinforcement in place, slow your roll. Remember that reinforcers change. It’s that good ole’ Taylor Swift effect I talk about. The new song comes out and you play it nonstop but after two weeks of hearing “Look What You Made Me Do” on repeat you are over it. Our kids are the same way, the same iPad app, slinky, or treat may no longer be functioning as a reinforcer. So time to do some preference assessments or switch it up. Read more here.

Consider these two scenarios:


  1. Very informational.

  2. Thanks for reading 🙂

  3. The “Can’t do” syndrome may be literally because of anxiety that triggers fear, especially if the fear was unexpected and the pain was real. However, could it be that a highly positve incentive can overpower a traumatic fear? What if a highly positive incentive could motivate him to move more quickly through complex stages of decision-making? – weighing the pros and cons of each choice, playing out the possible responses in advance of executing the plan to master what he considers the best choice for him in order to complete the job.

    • It depends but you really want to be careful with anything that is a trauma response with focusing too much on the incentive component. You’ll still need reinforcement, but I’d focus more on the skill-building aspect!

  4. Practical information. thanks

    • Happy to hear! Thanks for reading 🙂


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *