Kids do Well if they Can

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Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., is an American clinical child psychologist and the author of the books The Explosive Child, Lost at School, Lost and Found, and Raising Human Beings.

He has particular belief about children with social, emotional and behavioural challenges. Too frequently we think kids will do well if they want to – meaning its up to the kids. Its not uncommon to hear parents and teachers claiming a challenging child is just looking for attention, or they are wanting to get their own way, or they are being lazy, or they are manipulating, or they are not motivated. Ross Greene questions these assumptions and wonders why kids wouldn’t want to do well. And even if we settle with ‘kids do well if they want to’, he feels this is a narrow view because this reduces the role that adults can play in the life of a child that isn’t doing well.

Greene believes something is getting in the child’s way if he/she isn’t doing well. And, we can’t help kids if we don’t know what is getting in their way. When we change perspective and begin to understand that kids do well if they can, we can shift to a more productive and supportive role to help identify what is getting in the way of the child doing well. Dr. Greene suggests we shift our way of thinking and change our philosophy from ‘kids do well if they want to’, to ‘kids do well if they can’.

What is the difference between a challenging kid and a non-challenging kid? Greene’s answer to this is something he refers to as ‘Lagging skills’. Challenging behavior in children is best understood as the by-product of lagging skills and he identifies 5 types of lagging skills: Executive, Social, Language processing, Cognitive Flexibility, and Emotion Regulation Skills. Lagging Skills and unsolved problems set the stage to make our children vulnerable to challenging behaviour.

Whether a kid is sulking, pouting, whining, refusing to talk, crying, spitting, screaming, swearing, kicking, hitting, destroying property, or worse, we won’t know what to do about the challenging behavior until we identify 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. “Behind every challenging behavior is either an unsolved problem or a lagging skill” or both.

Challenging behavior is a form of communication letting us know there is an unsolved problem or lagging skill. When we can begin to identify what challenges the child has, we can create (restore) a helping relationship and apply different approaches to support the child and reduce the challenging behavior. Through compassion, reframing our thinking and understanding challenges, we will recognise when kids do not have the skills to do better, and we can equip children with what they need. Children do well if they can, and if they can’t, we as parents and teachers need to figure out what is getting in their way.

If you are interested in learning more I invite you to read the following article by Ross Greene – it’s well worth the read.