Kids Do Well If They Can

Kids Do Well If They Can



Kappan V90




Kids Do Well
If They Can
Kids with behavioral challenges are not attention-seeking, manipulative,
limit-testing, coercive, or unmotivated. But they do lack the skills to
behave appropriately. Adults can help by recognizing what causes their
difficult behaviors and teaching kids the skills they need.

BY ROSS GREENE

160

PHI DELTA KAPPAN

Photo: Photos.com

K

IDS WITH SOCIAL, EMOTIONAL, AND BEHAVIORAL

challenges lack important thinking skills.
Now there’s an idea that can take some
getting used to. Let’s begin by
considering your philosophy of kids: what kids are
about, why they do what they do, what they’re up
to (if they’re really up to anything).
Many adults have never given much thought to
their philosophy of kids. But if you’re trying to help
kids with behavioral challenges, you’re going to
need one, because it’s your philosophy of kids
that’s going to guide your beliefs and your actions
in your interactions with them, especially when the
going gets tough. The philosophy that serves as
the foundation of what you’re about to read is “kids
do well if they can.”
This philosophy may not sound earth-shattering,
but when we consider the very popular alternative
philosophy — “kids do well if they want to” — the
significance becomes clear. These two disparate
philosophies have dramatically different
ramifications for our assumptions about kids and
how to proceed when they do not meet our
expectations.

Excerpted from Lost at
School by Ross Greene,
Ph.D. Copyright ©
2008 by Ross Greene.
Reprinted by permission
of Scribner, an imprint
of Simon and Schuster,
Inc.
■ Ross W. Greene is
associate clinical professor
in the Department of
Psychiatry at Harvard
Medical School and the
author of The Explosive
Child. He is also
founding director of the
Collaborative Problem
Solving Institute, a
program based in the
Department of Psychiatry
at Massachusetts General
Hospital. Greene’s research
has been funded by the
U.S. Department of
Education, the National
Institute on Drug Abuse
(NIDA), and the Stanley
Medical Research
Institute.

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161

When the “kids do well if they want to” philosophy is applied to a child who’s not doing well, then
we believe that the reason he’s not doing well is because he doesn’t want to. This very common assumption is usually wrong and causes adults to believe that
their primary role in the life of a challenging kid (and

Behind every challenging
behavior is an unsolved
problem or a lagging skill (or
both).
the goal of intervention) is to make the kid want to
do well. This is typically accomplished by motivating
the kid, by giving him the incentive to do well, by rewarding him when he behaves in an adaptive fashion
and punishing him when he behaves in a maladaptive
fashion.
By contrast, the “kids do well if they can” philosophy carries the assumption that if a kid could do well.
he would do well. If he’s not doing well, he must be
lacking the skills needed to respond to life’s challenges
in an adaptive way. What’s the most important role
an adult can play in the life of such a kid? First, assume he’s already motivated, already knows right
from wrong, and has already been punished enough.
Then, figure out what thinking skills he’s lacking so
you know what thinking skills to teach.
LAGGING SKILLS

If you know what thinking skills a kid is lacking,
you’ll be in a much better position to teach those
skills. You’ll also be in a better position to anticipate
the situations in which challenging behavior is most
likely to occur. If you don’t know what skills a kid is
lacking, they probably won’t get taught, it will be
much harder to anticipate his worst moments, the
kid’s challenges will linger (or get worse), and he will
become increasingly frustrated, hopeless, and alienated, just as most of us would if we had a problem no
one seemed able to understand and were being treated in a way that made the problem worse.
When is challenging behavior most likely to occur?
When the demands being placed on a kid exceed his
capacity to respond adaptively. Of course, that’s when
all of us exhibit maladaptive behavior. The problem
for kids with behavioral challenges (and those around
them) is that they’re responding much more maladaptively than the rest of us, and much more often.
162

PHI DELTA KAPPAN

You see, there’s a spectrum of things kids do when
life’s demands exceed their capacity to respond adaptively. Some cry, or sulk, or pout, or whine, or withdraw — that would be the milder end of the spectrum. As we move toward the more difficult end of
the spectrum, we find screaming, swearing, spitting,
hitting, kicking, destroying property, lying, and truancy. And as we move even further toward the extreme end of the spectrum, we find self-induced vomiting, self-injurious behavior, drinking or using drugs
to excess, stabbing, and shooting. But all of these behaviors occur under the same conditions: when the
demands being placed on a kid exceed that kid’s capacity to respond adaptively. Why do some kids respond at the milder end of the spectrum while others
are at the more severe end? Some kids have the skills
to “hold it together” when pushed to their limits and
some don’t.
With this new perspective on challenging kids, much
of what we say about them no longer makes sense.
Take a look:
>> “He just wants attention.”
We all want attention, so this explanation isn’t very useful
for helping us understand why a kid is struggling to do well.
And if a kid is seeking attention in a maladaptive way,
doesn’t that suggest that he lacks the skills to seek
attention in an adaptive way?
>> “He just wants his own way.”
We all want our own way, so this explanation doesn’t help
us achieve an understanding of a kid’s challenges.
Adaptively getting one’s own way requires skills often found
lacking in challenging kids.
>> “He’s manipulating us.”
This is a very popular, and misguided, characterization of
kids with behavioral challenges. Competent manipulation
requires various skills — forethought, planning, impulse
control, and organization, among others — typically found
lacking in challenging kids. In other words, the kids who are
most often described as being manipulative are those least
capable of pulling it off.
>> “He’s not motivated.”
This is another very popular characterization that can be
traced back to the “kids do well if they want to” mentality,
and it can lead us straight to interventions aimed at giving a
kid the incentive to do well. But why would any kid not
want to do well? Why would he choose not to do well if he
has the skills to do well? Isn’t doing well always preferable?

>> “He’s making bad choices.”
Are you certain he has the skills and repertoire to
consistently make good choices?

• Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem.

>> “His parents are incompetent disciplinarians.”
This, too, is a popular way of thinking, but it fails to take
into account the fact that most challenging kids have wellbehaved siblings. Blaming parents doesn’t help anyone at
school deal effectively with the kid in the six hours a day,
five days a week, nine months of the year that he’s in the
building.

• Difficulty understanding what is being said.

>> “He has a bad attitude.”
He probably didn’t start out with one. “Bad attitudes” tend
to be the by-product of countless years of being
misunderstood and over-punished by adults who didn’t
recognize that a kid was lacking crucial thinking skills. But
kids are resilient; they come around if we start doing the
right thing.
>> “He has a mental illness.”
While he may well meet diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric
disorder and may even benefit from psychotropic
medication, this description is a nonstarter. Fifty years ago,
a psychiatrist named Thomas Szasz understood that
“mentally ill” was a limiting (and potentially inaccurate and
derisory) way to describe people with social, emotional, and
behavioral challenges. He advocated for reconceptualizing
these challenges as “problems in living,” a more fitting and
productive way of viewing things.
>> “His brother was the same way.”
Ah, so it’s the gene pool! Alas, we can’t do anything about
the gene pool, and it’s likely that his brother was lacking
some important thinking skills, too.

The following list is much more useful. It’s the list
of many skills frequently found lagging in challenging kids:
• Difficulty handling transitions, shifting from one mindset or task to another (shifting cognitive set).
• Difficulty mustering the energy to persist on tasks that
are challenging, effortful, or tedious.
• Difficulty doing things in a logical sequence or
prescribed order.
• Poor sense of time.
• Difficulty reflecting on multiple thoughts or ideas
simultaneously.
• Difficulty maintaining focus for goal-directed problem
solving.
• Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or
consequences of actions (impulsive).

• Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in
words.

• Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration
so as to think rationally (separation of affect).
• Chronic irritability and/or anxiety significantly impede
capacity for problem solving.
• Difficulty seeing the “grays”; concrete, literal, blackand-white thinking.
• Difficulty deviating from rules, routine, original plan.
• Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity,
uncertainty, novelty.
• Difficulty shifting from original idea or solution; difficulty
adapting to changes in plan or new rules; possibly
perseverative or obsessive.
• Difficulty taking into account situational factors that
would require adjusting one’s plan of action.
• Inflexible, inaccurate interpretations; cognitive
distortions or biases (e.g., “Everyone’s out to get me,”
“Nobody likes me,” “You always blame me,” “It’s not
fair,” “I’m stupid,” “Things will never work out for me”).
• Difficulty attending to and/or accurately interpreting
social cues; poor perception of social nuances.
• Difficulty starting a conversation, entering groups,
connecting with people; lacking other basic social
skills.
• Difficulty seeking attention in appropriate ways.
• Difficulty appreciating how one’s behavior is affecting
other people; often surprised by others’ responses to
his or her behavior.
• Difficulty empathizing with others, appreciating another
person’s perspective or point of view.
• Difficulty appreciating how one is coming across or
being perceived by others.

You may have noticed that this list contains no diagnoses. That’s because diagnoses don’t give us any
information about the cognitive skills a kid may be
lacking. All too often adults get caught up in the quest
for the right diagnosis, assuming that a diagnosis will
help them know what to do next. The reality is that
diagnoses aren’t especially useful for understanding
kids with behavioral challenges or for helping adults
know what to do next. Plus, kids don’t generally exhibit challenging behavior in a vacuum. It usually
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takes two to tango: a kid who’s lacking skills and an
environment (teachers, parents, peers) that demands
those skills. Diagnoses don’t reflect that reality, they
simply pathologize the child.
Let’s focus on a few of the lagging skills on the list
for the purpose of making clear the connection between lagging skills and how they can contribute to
challenging behavior.
IN FOCUS
Difficulty reflecting on multiple thoughts or ideas
simultaneously (disorganized).
Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a
problem.
Difficulty considering the likely outcomes or
consequences of one’s actions (impulsive).

When you’re faced with a problem or frustration,
your primary task is to solve the problem that caused
your frustration. To accomplish this task, these three
skills will be absolutely essential. That’s because problem solving requires a great deal of organized, planful
thinking.
Let’s ponder that for a moment. To solve a problem, you must first identify the problem you’re trying
to solve. Then you’ll need to think of solutions to the
problem. And then you’ll need to anticipate the likely outcomes of those solutions so as to pick the best
one. That’s how people make decisions.
Many kids are so disorganized in their thinking —
they have so much difficulty sorting through their
thoughts — that they’re unable to figure out what’s
frustrating them, in which case the process of problem solving comes to an abrupt halt, the problem
doesn’t get solved, and their frustration heightens (often setting in motion one of the behaviors on the
spectrum). Many are so disorganized that even if they
can manage to figure out what problem they’re trying
to solve, they can’t think of more than one solution
to the problem. Many are so impulsive that even if
they can think of more than one solution, they’ve already done the first thing that popped into their
heads. The bad news? Our first solution is often (not
always, but often) our worst. Good solutions usually
come to mind after we’ve inhibited our less optimal
initial impulses and considered our better options in
a more organized fashion. Many kids — often the disorganized, impulsive ones — are notorious for putting their “worst foot forward.” In other words, there
are many kids who are responding to life’s challenges
in a maladaptive fashion because they aren’t very
skilled at organizing their thoughts, thinking of alter164

PHI DELTA KAPPAN

native solutions, or anticipating likely outcomes.
Approaching problems in an organized, planful
manner, considering a variety of solutions, and reflecting on their likely outcomes are crucial developmental skills. Most 2-year-olds don’t yet possess these
skills. Neither do a lot of challenging kids who —
chronologically, at least — are a lot older.
Clearly, we have some skills to teach. But if the
school discipline program emphasizes formal consequences, they’re not going to get taught. Consequences only remind kids of what we don’t want them
to do and give them the incentive to do something
more adaptive instead. But they already know what
we don’t want them to do, and they’re already motivated to do something more adaptive instead. They
need something else from us.
IN FOCUS
Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts
in words.

Most of the thinking and communicating we do
involves language, so it’s no accident that many kids
with language delays also have trouble handling the
social, emotional, and behavioral demands that are
placed upon them. For example, many kids have trouble finding the words to tell someone what’s the matter or what they need. This can present a big problem;
life’s a lot easier when you have the linguistic wherewithal to let people know you “don’t feel like talking,”
that “something’s the matter,” that you “need a
minute to think,” that you “don’t know what to do,”
that you “need a break,” or that you “don’t like that.”
The reminder “use your words” won’t help at all if a
kid doesn’t have the words. It’s the lack of words that
often sets the stage for challenging behavior.
Some kids cry or become withdrawn when they
lack the language skills to successfully manage interactions with classmates and teachers. Of course, that’s
the mild end of the spectrum. Other kids express their
feelings or needs with “Screw you,” “I hate you,”
“Shut up,” “Leave me alone,” and other more colorful expressions (now we’re a little further down the
spectrum). And still others vault right past these inappropriate verbal options and wind up expressing
themselves physically (shoving, hitting, throwing
things, destroying property, running out of the classroom).
A crucial developmental leap occurs when kids begin to use words to let the world know what’s bugging them, what they need, and what they’re thinking. The social, emotional, and behavioral challenges

When lagging skills are invoked
as excuses, the door slams
shut on the process of thinking
about how to teach the kid the
skills he lacks.
of many kids can be traced back to a developmental
lag in these and related domains. Regrettably, language-processing problems are frequently overlooked. Adults often don’t think to assess language
skills when they’re trying to figure out why a challenging kid is challenging. And sometimes the testing instrumentation used in standard language assessments
doesn’t pick up on some of the finer-grained language
issues that may be involved; in such cases, the test results may not only fail to pinpoint the kid’s difficulties, but also erroneously conclude that the kid has no
language difficulties at all.
Can kids be taught to articulate their concerns,
needs, and thoughts more effectively? Absolutely. But
not until adults understand that it’s the lack of these
skills that is setting the stage for challenging behavior.
IN FOCUS
Difficulty managing emotional response to
frustration so as to think rationally (separation of
affect).

Separation of affect refers to the ability to separate
the emotions (affect) you’re feeling in response to a
problem or frustration from the thinking you must
do to resolve the problem. While emotions can be
quite useful for mobilizing or energizing people to
solve problems, thinking is how problems get solved.
Kids skilled at separating affect tend to respond to
problems or frustrations with more thought than
Photo: Photos.com

emotion, and that’s good. But kids who lack skill in
this domain tend to respond to problems or frustrations with more emotion and less (or no) thought,
and that’s not good at all. Learning how to put your
emotions “on the shelf ” so as to be able to think rationally is an essential developmental skill, and one
many challenging kids have failed to develop.
At the milder end of the spectrum, kids who are
having difficulty separating thought from emotion
may become highly anxious over, for example, an upcoming test, a new social situation, not understanding an assignment, or being embarrassed in front of
their classmates. They may cry over a bad grade, at not
being picked first for a team, or when they feel socially excluded. At the more extreme end of the spectrum,
their emotions may burst through in such a powerful
way that they scream, swear, throw something, hit
somebody, or worse. These kids may actually feel
themselves “heating up” but often aren’t able to stem
the emotional tide until later, when the emotions have
subsided and rational thought has returned. Naturally, the heating-up process will be greatly intensified if
adults or peers respond in a way that adds fuel to the
fire.
IN FOCUS
Difficulty seeing the “grays”; concrete, literal,
black-and-white thinking.
Difficulty deviating from rules, routine, original
plan.
Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity,
uncertainty, novelty.
Difficulty shifting from original idea or solution;
difficulty adapting to changes in plan; possibly
perseverative or obsessive.
Inflexible, inaccurate interpretations; cognitive
distortions or biases.

Young kids tend to be fairly rigid, black-and-white,
literal, inflexible thinkers. They’re still making sense
of the world, and it’s easier to put two and two together if they don’t have to worry about exceptions to
the rule or alternative ways of looking at things. As
kids develop, they learn that, in fact, most things in
life are “gray,” that there are exceptions to the rule and
alternative ways of interpreting things. Sometimes we
have a substitute teacher, a field trip needs to be
rescheduled because of the weather, someone is sitting
in our usual seat in the cafeteria, recess has to be indoors instead of outdoors.
Unfortunately, for some kids, “gray” thinking doesn’t develop as readily. Though some of these kids are
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tions to a world where few such rules apply. Some sulk
or become anxious when events don’t conform to
their original configuration or when they’ve interpreted an event in a distorted fashion. Some scream.
Some swear. Or throw things. Of course, those are the
things they do. All that tells you is where they are on
the spectrum of challenging behaviors. Now you
know why and when they’re doing them. That’s
where the action’s at.

Kids who haven’t responded
to natural consequences don’t
need more consequences.
Can black-and-white thinkers be helped to think
more flexibly? To move from an original way of thinking and adapt to circumstances or perspectives they
may not have taken into account? Most definitely . . .
so long as adults recognize that it’s hard to teach kids
to be more flexible by being inflexible themselves.
There’s a big difference between interpreting the
lagging skills described above as “excuses” rather than
as “explanations.” When lagging skills are invoked as
excuses, the door slams shut on the process of thinking about how to teach the kid the skills he lacks.
Conversely, when lagging skills are invoked as explanations for a kid’s behavior, the door to helping
swings wide open.
diagnosed with disorders such as nonverbal learning
disability or Asperger’s disorder, it’s more useful to
think of them as “black-and-white thinkers stuck in a
gray world.” Predictably, these kids are most likely to
exhibit challenging behavior when the world places
demands on them for gray thinking.
Many such kids are quite comfortable with factual
information because it’s black-and-white but grow
uncomfortable when life demands problem solving
because it’s gray. These kids love details (black-andwhite) but aren’t so adept at handling ambiguity
(gray) and often miss the “big picture” (gray). They
love predictability (it’s black-and-white) but don’t do
so well when things are unpredictable (gray). They
love certainty (black-and-white) and routines (blackand-white) but don’t handle uncertainty (gray) or
changes in plan (gray) very well.
These black-and-white thinkers often present significant challenges to their teachers and classmates as
they struggle to apply concrete rules and interpreta166

PHI DELTA KAPPAN

UNSOLVED PROBLEMS

So far, you’ve read about a sampling of the lagging
skills that can set the stage for challenging behavior,
but there’s another piece of information missing. We
can learn a lot about a kid’s social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, and identify potential avenues for
intervention, by noting the situations in which challenging behavior is most likely to occur. A situational analysis can give you invaluable information about
the circumstances or unsolved problems — sometimes called triggers or antecedents — that precipitate
social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
For example, if a kid is having some of his greatest
difficulties during circle time, then circle time is a circumstance precipitating challenging behavior. If a kid
is having difficulty getting along with other kids during recess, then getting along with other kids during
recess is an unsolved problem precipitating challenging behavior. And if a kid is refusing to work when
Photo: Photos.com

paired with a particular classmate, then working with
that particular classmate is a circumstance or unsolved
problem precipitating challenging behavior. A lot of
adults nominate the word “no” as a trigger. But it’s not
specific enough. It’s what the adult is saying “no” to
— going to the bathroom (yet again), sharpening a
pencil (yet again), excessive talking or teasing — that
helps adults know the specific problem they need to
solve (so they don’t have to keep saying “no” so often). We know these problems haven’t been solved yet
because they’re still setting the stage for maladaptive
behavior.

isn’t especially effective for the challenging ones because it doesn’t teach any lagging skills or solve any
problems.

NEW LENSES

What option invariably kicks in next? Those very
powerful, ever-present, and inescapable natural consequences: praise, approval, embarrassment, being
scolded, being liked or disliked, being invited to
things (or not), and so forth. Challenging kids experience lots of natural consequences but are far more
likely to experience the punishing variety than their
less challenging counterparts. While natural consequences are inescapable, they don’t teach lagging
thinking skills or solve problems, so for many challenging kids they aren’t especially effective at reducing difficult behavior.
If the first two options don’t achieve the desired effect, adults usually turn to a third option and add
more consequences, those of the imposed, “logical,”
“unnatural,” or “artificial” variety. These include punishments, such as staying in from recess, time-out
from reinforcement, detention, suspension, and expulsion; and rewards, such as special privileges. Of
course, the kids who are on the receiving end of most
imposed, logical consequences are the ones who haven’t
responded to natural consequences. But imposed,
logical consequences don’t teach lagging skills or help
kids solve problems any better than natural consequences do. Indeed, when logical consequences are
being liberally applied but are not effectively reducing a kid’s challenging behavior, I think they’re probably more accurately referred to as illogical consequences.
My view is that kids who haven’t responded to natural consequences don’t need more consequences,
they need adults who are knowledgeable about how
challenging kids come to be challenging, who can
identify the lagging skills and unsolved problems that
are setting the stage for maladaptive behavior, and
who know how to teach those skills and help solve
those problems. We’ve learned a lot about children’s
brains in the last 30 years. It’s time for our actions to
K
reflect our knowledge.

There are many lenses through which challenging
behavior in kids can be viewed. Here’s the mantra that
encapsulates the view of this author: Behind every
challenging behavior is an unsolved problem or a lagging skill (or both).
Whether a kid is sulking, pouting, whining, withdrawing, refusing to talk, curling up in a fetal position, crying, spitting, screaming, swearing, running
out of the classroom, kicking, hitting, destroying
property, or worse, you won’t know what to do about
the challenging behavior until you’ve identified the
lagging skills or unsolved problems that gave rise to
it. Lagging skills are the why of challenging behavior.
Unsolved problems are the who, what, when, and
where.
Once you have a decent handle on a kid’s lagging
skills and unsolved problems, you’ve taken a major
step in the right direction because the kid’s challenging episodes are now highly predictable, which is
good news if you’re a teacher and have a class full of
25 other students. You don’t have to wait until the kid
is disrupting the class before you try to teach skills or
solve problems; you can do it in advance because the
disruption is predictable. A lot of adults find it hard
to believe that a kid’s challenging behaviors are highly predictable, believing instead that such behaviors
are unpredictable and occur out of the blue. But that’s
not true, not if you know what skills the child is lacking and what his triggers are.
ILLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES

Before moving on, let’s consider why consequences
may not be an effective way to teach skills or help kids
solve problems. There are a variety of ways to address
a kid’s challenging behavior. One common option is
to simply tell the kid you don’t approve of his behavior and to suggest alternative behaviors. While this
can be an effective approach for a lot of kids, it often

There’s a big difference
between interpreting the
lagging skills as “excuses”
rather than as “explanations.”

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File Name and Bibliographic Information
k0811gre.pdf
Ross Greene, Kids Do Well If They Can, Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 90,
No. 03, November 2008, pp. 160-167.

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