Understanding the Complexities of Childhood Behavioral Struggles: They Won't, They Can't, or They Don't

article photo of a child passing through a door showing the complexity of his own experiences and struggles by Dr. Sam Goldstein

In a small town, a young boy named Leo, was known for his mischievous behavior. He would disrupt classes, play pranks on the adults, and never seemed to listen to anyone. His actions troubled his parents and neighbors, So, they sought help from three renowned psychologists at the College in the town.

The first psychologist, Dr. Stern, observed Leo and concluded, "This boy will never behave. He lacks discipline and respect for authority." Dr. Stern believed in strict rules and consequences, convinced that Leo chose to misbehave.

The second psychologist, Dr. Ponder, watched Leo and thought, "This boy cannot behave. He must have an underlying issue that prevents him from following the rules." Dr. Ponder was known for her deep analyses but often overlooked simpler solutions.

Finally, the third psychologist, Dr. Wise, spent time with Leo, engaging him in various activities and conversations. She soon realized something that the others had missed. After considering the opinions of her colleagues she concluded, "This boy doesn't know how to behave. No one has ever taught him the skills he needs to interact positively with others."

Dr. Wise worked patiently with Leo, teaching him about empathy, respect, and communication. She showed him how his actions affected others and guided him in understanding social norms and expectations. As weeks turned into months, Leo began to change. His parents, neighbors, teachers and peers noticed that he was no longer the mischievous boy he once was but a considerate and helpful member of their community. He even started teaching the younger children what Dr. Wise had taught him.

The parable of Leo teaches us the importance of understanding before judging, the power of guidance over punishment, and the transformative impact of teaching appropriate behavior rather than simply expecting it.

Childhood is a critical stage of development, characterized by rapid growth, learning, and behavioral changes. It's a period when children navigate through many physical, emotional, and social challenges. Behavioral issues are common during this phase, often baffling parents and educators. Generally, as with Leo, we can categorize these issues into three distinct types: "they won't," "they can't," or "they don't," with each type representing a different underlying cause and requiring different approaches for resolution.

"They Won't” – Defiance or Oppositional Behavior

The "They Won't" category, commonly identified as defiance or oppositional behavior, presents a unique challenge in child behavior management. This behavior occurs when children fully understand what is expected but deliberately choose not to comply. Various factors can influence this decision, ranging from a young child's innate desire for autonomy to their response to what they perceive as unfairness or inconsistency in rules. Additionally, resistence may be used as a strategy to gain attention.

Children exhibiting this behavior are not necessarily acting out without reason. For instance, a child refusing to do their homework might do so not because of an inability but as a method to assert their independence or in response to feeling that their workload is disproportionately heavy compared to their peers. This behavior could also manifest in scenarios where the child has observed that non-compliance, even though it draws negative attention, results in more engagement from parents or teachers than compliance.

Effectively managing this behavior requires a nuanced approach. It's essential to balance enforcing clear, consistent expectations and respecting the child's need for autonomy. Implementing strategies like positive reinforcement for compliance can be beneficial. For instance, establishing a reward system or offering choices within set boundaries can encourage more cooperative behavior. These approaches signal to the child that while specific rules are non-negotiable, they do have a measure of control over their actions.

An equally important aspect of handling such behavior is the caregiver's response. Maintaining calmness and consistency is crucial. Overreacting or entering power struggles can exacerbate the situation, reinforcing the child's oppositional behavior. Instead, caregivers should aim to model the behavior they wish to see, demonstrating that while rules are to be followed, there is room for negotiation and understanding within those parameters. This approach not only helps manage immediate behavior but also aids in teaching the child valuable life skills such as negotiation, compromise, and the importance of following rules.

"They Can't” – Underlying Challenges or Disabilities

In the "They Can't" scenario, children's behavioral difficulties are not just acts of defiance. They are often rooted in underlying challenges or disabilities like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disabilities, or emotional disturbances such as depression or anxiety. Due to their unique developmental, neurological, or psychological profiles, these conditions impact the child’s ability to adhere to typical behavioral norms.

For example, a child with ADHD might find it highly challenging to manage their impulses. This difficulty can manifest in behaviors such as an inability to remain seated or a tendency to act without waiting for their turn. Similarly, a child on the ASD may have trouble interpreting and responding to social cues and norms, resulting in behaviors that might appear inappropriate or misplaced in specific social contexts.

Addressing these behaviors requires a practical understanding of each child's needs and challenges. In some instances, effective interventions can range from specialized teaching methods and behavioral therapies to medication. It's imperative to craft an environment that's supportive of their needs. This includes providing structured routines, explicit and clear instructions, and scheduled breaks for sensory regulation.

Moreover, an empathetic and patient approach is vital. Adults working with these children should strive to understand their perspectives and challenges, helping them navigate their behavioral issues more effectively. Such an approach not only aids in managing their behavior but also supports their overall development and well-being.

"They Don't”– Lack of Skills or Knowledge”

Lastly, the "They Don't" scenario highlights situations when children have yet to acquire the necessary skills or knowledge for expected behavior. This deficiency often stems from a lack of teaching or demonstrating appropriate behavior, particularly relevant in the case of young children still learning social norms and appropriate responses in various situations.

For instance, a child may resort to hitting another child out of frustration, not with the intent to harm but simply because they haven't yet acquired the skills to express their emotions in a socially acceptable manner. Likewise, a child may struggle with understanding how to engage in group play, leading to behavior that appears awkward or disruptive to others.

In such cases, teaching and modeling appropriate behaviors are crucial. This process involves clear and explicit instruction, engaging in role-playing activities, and creating opportunities for the child to practice newly learned skills in a safe and supportive environment. Employing positive reinforcement when the child exhibits desired behaviors can effectively reinforce these lessons. Additionally, adults must consistently model the behaviors they wish to see in children. Children are observant and often emulate the actions and reactions of adults around them, making adult behavior a powerful tool in guiding and shaping children's social and emotional development.


Understanding the underlying reasons for a child's behavioral struggles is crucial in addressing them effectively. Each type of struggle - "They Won't," "They Can't," or "They Don't" - necessitates a distinct approach. In the "They Won't" scenario, the focus should be establishing clear boundaries and promoting positive behaviors through consistent rules and consequences. For children who "Can't" due to underlying challenges or disabilities, it's essential to understand and accommodate their specific needs, through tailored interventions or environmental modifications. Lastly, for those who "Don't," like Leo, the key lies in teaching and demonstrating the desired behaviors, identifying challenges if present by providing the necessary skills and opportunities to learn and practice in a supportive setting.

Customizing our responses to address the root cause of a child's behavior allows us to provide more effective and constructive support. This tailored approach ensures that each child receives the specific guidance and assistance they need, enhancing their overall developmental journey. By focusing on the underlying reasons for behaviors, we not only address immediate challenges but also significantly contribute to children’s long-term emotional and psychological well-being. ◆