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Understanding ADHD: "Can't" vs "Won't"

Understanding ADHD

One of the most baffling things about individuals with ADD & ADHD is that they have such a paradox of strengths and challenges. They can do brilliantly well at some things, in some environments and at some times, and still struggle at similar things, in other environments or even with the same things at other times.

Their neural differences are so "invisible" that their lack of performance is often attributed to a lack of effort, motivation or discipline and they are labeled lazy, willful or manipulative, To make matters worse as they get older, they spend years learning that their efforts do not result in any real results in a neuro-typical world, so they become demotivated and learn that they are "helpless" to affect any real change. To add to the self fulfilling prophecy, they decide they might as well live down to everyone's expectations and be that problem kid who does not have their act together.

The truth is that our perspective as parents or teachers affects how the child's experience is shaped. Do you predominantly believe that when faced with an expectation, the child in front of you "won't" do it, or "could do it if he wanted to" OR do you predominantly believe that when faced with an expectation, the child "can't" do it, or "would do it if he could"?

It is a simple but profound difference. If we see it as a "won't", we are much more likely to assign blame and judgement and look to punish or reward behavior to motivate the child. If we see it as a "can't", we are much more likely to problem solve and try to identify underlying issues and obstacles in the child's way. Sadly, if we misinterpret a "can't" as a "won't" , no amount of punishment or reward will lead to any long term solutions and we can get caught in a mounting power struggle with the child.

As an ADHD Coach, I find that children with executive function challenges have what Dr Ross Greene calls "lagging skills" (1). Here is a simple illustration of the concept:

trigger/expectation + sufficient skill = adaptive behavior (child can)

trigger/expectation + lagging skill = challenging behavior (child can't)

Examples of lagging skills in ADHD include not being able to shift attention easily, poor sense of time, difficulty sustaining interest and attention on tedious tasks, difficulty attending to social cues and so on.

It is important to note that the lagging skills are not an excuse for behavior, rather a way to identify the root cause of unsolved problems. Then, we can find solutions and strategies to address these problems. Solutions often involve helping the child build skills and strategies while supporting their success with external structure and systems.

However, this path to success starts with understanding that all children would do well if they could. Watch this video by Dr Greene for more on this philosophy


(1) Dr Ross Greene's website:

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