Just is a four-letter word

If he just tried harder… If she just paid attention…He just wants attention… If she just behaved better… He’s just lazy.

I frequently hear comments like these from parents, teachers, and, yes, even doctors. The problem with the word “just” is that it – and we – minimize the challenges that children face on a daily, and sometimes on a minute-by-minute, basis. When we use “just” in this way, we blame the child for his or her shortcomings.

When I saw Dr. Ross Greene speak in Chicago a few years ago, he said, “Kids do well if they can; not kids do well if they wanna.” This resonated with me. Although Dr. Greene's work focuses on behaviorally challenging children, his words are applicable to all children. That is, children want to do well, and if a child is not appearing to act in his or her best interest, there is likely something getting in the way.

What do I mean by “something getting in the way?” Let’s say your child has trouble completing his math homework by himself. Whenever he sits down to do his homework, he gets distracted, leaves the desk, looks at the computer, talks to anyone nearby, acts frustrated when you try to help… You get the picture.

You might say to yourself, “He just doesn’t want to do homework.” But let’s dig a litter deeper. What else could be going on? Or, as psychologists like to say: What is the function of his behavior?

Perhaps your child has difficulty with math. Maybe he didn’t understand the topic the way the teacher explained it. Perhaps he has more global problems with attention and concentration. Or maybe he finds holding a pencil to be strenuous. There are many possible explanations for your child’s behavior, but when we “just” our children, we don’t take the time to understand what’s really going on, which leads to frustration on everyone’s part.

Why did I choose this topic for my first blog post? For one, I wanted to explain the philosophy behind my work with children. Every child who comes through my door, I view with the lens of, “She is doing the best she can.” This is easier said. My patience is often challenged by children and adolescents who get distracted, upset, or angry when I ask them to complete challenging tasks. In the moment, it is not always easy to remember that their behavior is a reaction to the demand of the task exceeding their abilities. Their frustration is warranted.

I also wanted to share this philosophy with You. As the summer comes to an end and we begin the new school year, keep in mind that your children want to do well. They want good grades, praise from their parents and teachers, and acceptance from their peers. They want to succeed. If they are failing, let us together examine the obstacles in their way and empathize with their struggle.