244: Is It Can’t or Won’t?

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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In this episode of the Beautifully Complex podcast, I’m taking a deep dive into the concept of “can’t versus won’t” when examining a child’s behavior. It’s important to understand that the majority of the time, when a child is struggling, it is a “can’t” rather than a “won’t,” even when it feels like an undoubtable won’t.

I cover the complexities involved in assessing the “doability” of tasks for neurodivergent kids and provide an acronym, “DESKS,” to help parents and educators analyze the factors that contribute to a task’s doability for that child. Each factor plays a significant role in determining whether a child can or cannot complete a task without significant support or accommodations.

Learn to approach challenges with empathy and understanding, and the framework required to assess doability to support children in overcoming barriers to achieving success.

3 Key Takeaways


Doability Assessment: Understanding whether a child’s behavior is due to “can’t” or “won’t” involves assessing five key areas: differences, environment, skills, knowledge, and sensitivities (DESKS). This assessment helps you determine the support and accommodation needed to make tasks doable for neurodivergent children.


Neurodivergent Sensitivities: Neurodivergent children have a heightened autonomic nervous system, causing them to often perceive potential danger more frequently. Recognizing and addressing their sensitivities, and providing tools and strategies for regulation, is crucial in making tasks more doable for them.


Assumptions and Support: Assume that neurodivergent kids are doing the best they can in a particular moment. By using a brain-based lens to understand their complexities, parents and educators can effectively support kids in overcoming barriers to doability to help them succeed.

What You'll Learn

How to differentiate between “can’t” and “won’t” when it comes to behavior.

The importance of assuming that kids are doing their best and understanding the factors that may be getting in their way.

The significance of using a brain-based lens rather than a behavior-based lens when assessing behavior.

An in-depth analysis and actionable checklist, using the DESKS acronym, to determine the doability of tasks for a neurodivergent child.

The impact of differences, environment, skills, knowledge, and sensitivities on your child’s ability to complete tasks.

Understanding the triggers of your child’s autonomic nervous system and how it affects their regulation and sense of safety.

Strategies on how to support and empower your child to make tasks more doable and attainable for them.


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Penny Williams [00:00:03]: We have to look at all these different factors to really look at particular moment. There's really a lot that goes into this. This particular moment. There's really a lot that goes into this because our kids are complex.

Penny Williams [00:00:25]: Welcome to the Beautifully Complex podcast where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your atypical kid. Let's get started.

Penny Williams [00:00:48]: Welcome back to the Beautifully Complex podcast. In this episode, I wanna talk to you about can't versus won't. And really looking at our child's behavior, our teen's behavior, in a way where we can determine with validity that it's either a can't or a won't. A and I'm gonna give you a little spoiler right here at the beginning. 99.999% of the time, It is can't. It is can't, not won't. Remember that Ross Greene teaches us that kids do well a if they can. If they can.

Penny Williams [00:01:34]: Not when they want to, but if they can. So if they're not doing well, if they're not meeting expectations, we have to ask ourselves, what is getting in their way? We always need to assume that our kids are doing the best that they can. Because, again, 99% of the time, They're doing the best that they can because they want to do well, because they want to please us. They want praise. They want acceptance. A and so you have to come into challenges through a framework of understanding that a they are showing up and doing their best. They are really doing the best that they can given their circumstances, and that's we're really gonna dive deep on in this episode. So we're assuming their kids are doing the best they can, a and then we're going to make sure that we're using our brain based lens.

Penny Williams [00:02:37]: Because when we use a behavior based lens, we're judging. We're stuck on that surface behavior. We're stuck with how it feels. Because usually, Quite honestly, as the adult in the room, that all of that is being sort of spewed on, it feels bad. It may feel disrespectful, oppositional, defiant, lazy, unmotivated. But we have to look past what it looks like on the surface and how it feels. And we cannot judge the behavior. A when we fall into those 3 traps, getting stuck with what it looks like, how it feels, and judging it, then we are stuck with that behavior based lens.

Penny Williams [00:03:25]: And if we're stuck with that behavior based lens, guess what? We're not gonna be effective. We're not gonna be helpful. We're not even really going to be able to change that behavior long term. We're stuck. Honestly, behavior based lens equals stuck. You're going to say stuck when you view behavior in that way. And so instead, we want to use that brain based lens. We want to focus on what's underneath the behavior.

Penny Williams [00:03:56]: When you dive deep on a behavior, we're really seeing that a it's probably not a won't. Right? It's most likely a can't. So let's really take a deep look at analyzing what I call the doability of something for our kids. Is it doable? A and what factors go into determining if it is doable. We have to look at all these different factors to really look at doability for our kid, given their circumstances in the current environment, this particular day at this particular moment. There's really a lot that goes into this because our kids are complex, and complex kids require some complex analyzing sometimes. Right? They require us to meet them where they are with that same sort of complexity. And we're going to simplify it.

Penny Williams [00:05:03]: I'm not saying that it's going to be complex and overwhelming for you forever. I'm just saying that you have to really understand and accept how complex doability is for your kid. So let's look at what makes something doable. There are 5 areas that I look at when I am determining the doability of a task for a neurodivergent kid, teen, young adult, adult, a whoever it is. Really, this works for everybody, every human being. But we're, of course, looking at neurodivergence here. And so there is actually an acronym for these 5 areas. It is DESKS, DESKS.

Penny Williams [00:05:53]: Now DESKS does not relate to these things, but there is, you know, an actual acronym which usually helps us to remember the parts of something. Right? So desks, the d is for differences, e is for environment, s is for skills, k is for knowledge, and that last s is for sensitivities. A so let's look at each one in more detail. 1st, we have to think about our kids' differences. Right? We are raising differently wired kids, teens, and young adults? Their neurology is different. Their wiring is different. ADHD, autism, anxiety, it creates differences in this area that we have to be aware of, we have to understand, and we have to take into account when we are determining doability, when we're setting expectations in so many ways. Right? We need to be taking this into account all the time for our kids, because they do have neuro differences.

Penny Williams [00:07:04]: And so what within their different neurology might make something doable or not doable for them. Something like the skills, which we're gonna talk about more in a minute. But when we're talking about ADHD, a we need to talk about executive functioning skills. That is a hallmark trait of ADHD that people struggle with executive functioning. So we're taking into account those types of differences in the ways that they show up for our individual kid, because this has to be totally 100% individualized for your child. A if you've seen 1 person with ADHD, you've seen 1 person with ADHD. If you've seen 1 kid with autism, you've seen 1 kid with autism. Even anxiety shows up differently in different ways for different people.

Penny Williams [00:07:59]: And so you must look at your kids specifically. Yes. It's good to read articles, understand ADHD in general, autism in general. Right? But you also have to then drill down and say, this is what it looks like in my kid. So d in desks is for differences. Ab e is for environment. We're talking about the surroundings. At that moment, when we're assessing doability, a what is the environment like? And we're looking at sensory, social, a and agency or control, because that is a big, big piece of how our kids process, move through, and tolerate, cope with environment.

Penny Williams [00:08:48]: So first, sensory. Many of our kids have sensory struggles, a or their sensory seekers. They're bouncing around all the time. They're touching everything. They're bumping into everything. For our sensory avoiders, They might be trying to flee if something is too loud or too bright. The organization of or chaos visually of the environment can have a big effect on behavior as well. A kiddo in my own family you always had a breakdown, frankly, as a young child when we went to a discount grocery store where everything was just kind of thrown on the shelves.

Penny Williams [00:09:29]: It was very visually chaotic, and this child struggled every single time in that particular environment. So these things can have a very huge impact on behavior. Also, social. So who are the people that they're with? How are those people acting? Are they predictable or unpredictable? A are they positive, or are they having a negative effect? All of that is playing into doability as well. Right? Ab because it is setting your kid up for either doability or not doable. You know, it's setting them up for success or not success. Right? I don't wanna say failure, so we're gonna call it not success. A the 3rd piece in environment is that agency and control piece.

Penny Williams [00:10:19]: Kids always do better when they have a sense that they are in control of themselves. They are able to leave if the environment or the situation is too overwhelming. My own son had a lot of school avoidance and refusal. And he told me, probably 2 years after he graduated from high school, that he felt really trapped in the classroom. Because if he needed a break, he had to ask permission. Right? A he had to interrupt the teacher. He had to ask. And with mostly teachers who didn't quite get it, the answer was usually no.

Penny Williams [00:10:58]: And so he felt super trapped. He couldn't be in that environment and function and learn, and so he was often avoiding it a or trying to get out of it. So that plays a big role also in the doability of a task or an environment for your kid. A they need to have some sense of autonomy and a say in what is going on for them. A and if they have to endure it or not on their own will and not the will of someone else. A so that's the e in desks. So we've got d differences, e environment. Now we're on s for skills.

Penny Williams [00:11:43]: A our kids have a lot of lagging skills, people. You know this. You have seen them struggle with a lot of skills. Getting things done that requires planning, organization, sequencing, time management. Right? Those are all executive function skills, task initiation, regulation, like self regulation, emotional regulation. Those are executive functioning skills. Our kids are often really struggling with those skills. The other set of skills that I see that really plays into doability most commonly is social and emotional skills.

Penny Williams [00:12:22]: So if I have really poor social skills, I might be having a really hard time playing with kids on the playground or at recess. That might be causing me a lot of problems. It might make playing on our own without having help from an adult, difficult, not doable. So that's a factor. But also emotional skills, emotional communication, emotional regulation, understanding how I'm feeling, understanding the signals that my body is giving me about how I'm feeling, those are all really important parts and skills that our kids need in order to make things doable. So when we're analyzing the doability of a task, a project, an environment for our kid in that moment. Again, remember, this changes from moment to moment. Ab in that moment, we have to think about the lagging skills, and are those skills getting in the way of doability? A is it a task that's heavy on planning an organization? Is my child really good at that, or do they really struggle with that? A it might make it less doable.

Penny Williams [00:13:34]: And we're not saying that things that aren't doable can't be done. They just need support. They need accommodation. They need your help. But initially, you're assessing doability. And when you complete this assessment that we're walking through, then you'll know the areas of support that are needed to make it doable if it isn't doable on its own. A, right, if it is a can't and not a won't. And assessing the doability here is that step of first assessing, is it can't or won't? So we've talked about d for differences, e for environment, s for skills.

Penny Williams [00:14:17]: Now we're on k for knowledge, the k in desks. Do they know what to do? We so often miss this point entirely? We get so focused on getting started, getting something done, right, getting moving in the right direction. We forget to even ask ourselves, does my kid or student know what to do, how to do it and how to get started. Our kids get tripped up there a lot, and they may not have the ability to really vocalize that that is what they are struggling with, with any of these areas that we're talking about. They may not be able to just tell you with their words that this is what's going on for them, they may not be able to really assess that for themselves yet and put words to it. So we are having to dive deep and really try to get to the root of what's going on. And so we have to ask ourselves, do they know what to do? Do they know how to do it? And do they know how to get started or where to start? So let's take a school example because I think these are always the easiest examples to really assess. They're they're the most obvious examples a lot of times.

Penny Williams [00:15:34]: So if you give a kid, say, a science project, a there's a 2 page typed summary and outline of the expectations, the instructions for this project. A is your child, your student, going to be able to sit down with that 2 pages, make sense of it, understand it, fully understand the expectation and know how to get started and how to proceed? Those are all questions that must be assessed as well. Do they have the knowledge in this moment, to know what to do, how to do it, and how or where to get started. A they may need your support there. And then our 2nd s, last letter in desks, is sensitivities. A this is really important piece to understand. Our kids who are neurodivergent have different neurology and different wiring, their autonomic nervous system, that automatic system in our bodies is typically much more sensitive. It is sounding the alarm of potential danger much more often for neurodivergent kids than for neurotypical kids.

Penny Williams [00:17:01]: So you have to see and ask yourself, has something triggered their autonomic nervous system, triggered that alarm for potential danger, and cause them to be dysregulated in their body, in their emotions. That is not something that your child is choosing. There's no intention behind that. Oh, well, I just really wanna be dysregulated right now. I really wanna be in fear right now. A no. This is an automatic process that happens in our bodies. It happens to signal that we might be in danger so we can take steps to protect ourselves.

Penny Williams [00:17:42]: But it doesn't always get it right. And for our kids, when it's more sensitive, they're just getting a lot more alarms of danger, which makes them feel a lot less safe. So if your kid is dysregulated. While you're trying to assess the doability of something, it makes it very not doable. A they need to be regulated. They need to feel safe for anything to feel doable or to really be doable, honestly. None of us can do our best when we're dysregulated. As adults, especially for neurotypical adults, we have learned how to sort of power through and push through when maybe we're a little bit dysregulated.

Penny Williams [00:18:27]: But our kids don't have those skills yet. Right? Always yet. So what can we do to support? And, really, the answer to that is have to help your kid get regulated again. You have to give them the time and the tools, the strategies to get regulated again before something is going to become doable. So we've looked at these 5 areas to assess doability. A DESKS is our acronym, d for differences, e for environment, s for skills, a for knowledge and s for sensitivities. All of those pieces go into doability. And that doability is telling you if it is a can't or a won't when your child is struggling to get something done.

Penny Williams [00:19:17]: And, again, as I said at the very beginning, 99.99% of the time, it is a can't. We have to give our kids the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best that they can today, right now, in this moment, given their differences, their environment, their lagging skills, their potentially lagging knowledge, and their increased sensitivities. So what I would like you to do with this information is start really thinking about a particular task when it's a struggle, going through this doability assessment, this checklist. And then when you get to the end of this checklist, you're gonna see, how can I support my kid? Where are the things that are tripping them up and making something less doable for them? How can I support that? What tools, strategies, knowledge, presence can I give to make this doable, a to make it? So it's not even a can't or a won't. It's a I got it done. I was able. I made it across the threshold. Keep this in mind.

Penny Williams [00:20:27]: You can go to the show notes for this episode, and I will have this outlined for you so that you can print it out, the desk's way to analyze the duability. And those show notes are at parentingADHDandautism.com/244 for episode 244. I hope that this has been enlightening, has given you a framework for really assessing when something is a can't or won't for your child, and I will see you in the next episode. A take good care.

Penny Williams [00:21:04]: Thanks for joining me on the Beautifully Complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share, and don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parentingADHDandautism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com.

Thank you!

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it. Have something to say, or a question to ask? Leave a comment below. I promise to answer every single one. **Also, please leave an honest review for the Beautifully Complex Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and appreciated! That's what helps me reach and help more families like yours.

I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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About the show...

I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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