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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

“Kids will do well if they can”, Dr. R. Greene

I went to an interesting workshop on managing challenging behaviour and I thought I’d share some of Dr. Ross Greene’s ideas.  Not only do his ideas give one cause to think about misbehaviour, but they also help us to understand kids’ academic behaviours as well.  (If you want to learn more visit his website:

We often think that kids don’t do well at school or misbehave because they want to.  How often do we say to kids:  Are you making good choices?  I do it myself.  But, implicit in the question is the belief on my part that the student could make good choices if he or she wanted to, which, logically leads to the belief that the student has purposely made a bad choice.  In my question I am implying that the student could have equally have chosen the other path.  We also tend to say, when faced with a student who is behaving badly, that the student is acting in this way because it gets him or her something:  attention, a way out of doing work, an escape.  Again, in this assumption also lays the assumption that the student is choosing these behaviours to get the desired, albeit socially unacceptable, effect.

Greene posits a different theory:  Kids do well if they can.  After all, it is always more agreeable to do well if one can.  I can’t really think of a time when, all things being equal, I actually chose to do less than my best or to be mean or to purposely not do a good job when I could or to lose my temper just because.  There have been many times when I have, in hindsight, wished I had chosen differently.  Even if in the moment I am flooded with guilt at my choice, it is always after the fact. But, I can’t really remember ever choosing to do bad.

This puts misbehaviour in a whole new light.  It suggests, then, that really challenging students are operating from a skills deficit model.  If they had the appropriate skills, they would do well.  If we look at challenging students in this way, it may change how we deal with them.  A model of imposed consequences will not remedy deficit skills.

Let’s take this to the academic arena.  If we start with “Kids will do well if they can” then it may change how we view academic progress.  After all, if you could do the math problem, or write a really good essay or play a piece of music or organize your work, wouldn’t you?  Do you ever plan a not-so-great lesson even though you could have planned a great one?  Do you ever write poor report card comments even though you could write better ones?  Do you ever mark work incorrectly even though you could have done it correctly?  Do you ever write a letter to a parent that is disorganized and with poor spelling even though you could do it properly?  Do you ever assign work you know in advance is inappropriate for your students even though you could choose a better assignment?  Probably not.  It is always preferable to do a good job.  When we have the skills to do so, we access them and proceed.

When we are lamenting that students are not doing well, EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE TAUGHT IT, there is a tendency to think that they just don’t want to do what we have taught.  But, maybe they haven’t learned it yet, and, therefore, we need to teach some of those students again (and again and again).  Once students really understand what they need to do, they tend to do it, and feel proud of their work.

Of course, this mindset makes our jobs harder.  It’s easy to lay it all on the kid’s doorstep and impose consequences or poor marks when kids do badly.  It is much, much harder to figure out which skills are missing and work with them to teach the skills.  And the kid has a responsibility here, too.  In both behaviour and academics we need to work with students and listen to them when determining what the problem is, which skills are missing and how we are going to go about solving the problem.  The student needs to feel that he or she is understood and has a role in solving the problem. It is hard work for both us and the student. In the end, though, when we feel like we are solving a problem rather than being punished, we tend to be willing to try.  And when kids see success, within a supported environment, they begin to believe in themselves and believe that the adults in their lives really are there for them.

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