Strategies for transforming "I can't!" into "I did it!"

As a parent of four children and a pediatric occupational therapist, I have heard the statement, "I can't!" countless times. Typically these words are emotionally charged and often accompanied by some sort of dramatic actions as the child protests the task that has set the very weight of the world on his shoulders. As adults, this can be frustrating because we know the child actually can (or the child can with help). We have the insight to understand that "I can't!" usually means one of two things:

1."I think this task is too hard", "I don't think I have the skills to do this", or

2. "I don't want to do this (right now)", "This is going to be boring", "This isn't going to be fun"

In both cases, it is important to help the child reframe the statement to accurately reflect what he is feeling. You can say something like, You said "I can't", but I know that you can! Do you mean that it seems too difficult, or that you don't want to do it?

If the answer is related to #1, reassure the child that you are there to help, and that the only thing she has to do is try her best. I use a visual with a 5 point scale to rate effort, and also help the child to rate her own effort. Often times when the child focuses on improving effort, the outcomes will also improve. 

 If the answer is related to #2, you can work with the child to identify ways to make the task more fun or less "boring"; often when the child has a sense of control and choice, she is more likely to buy into engaging in the task. Some strategies for modifying the task include:

- Allow the child to work in a different position, such as standing, lying or sitting on a beanbag or floor cushion with a lapboard,

- Add an element of fun or movement into the task; for example, tape spelling words to the walls around the house and have the child find each one, and then draw a picture of the word and write it,

- Help the child to break the task up into work times and break times, and not have to complete it all in one sitting. You can write out the steps in a checklist format, and use a sand timer, kitchen timer or visual timer to count down work and break times.

Finally, it can be helpful to build the child's awareness of the perception of the "I can't!" task before and after actually completing it. Often, a child will think a task is going to be boring or very difficult, and then after doing it, realizes that it wasn't so bad. I use a simple rating scale for helping the child compare perception of how he thought the task was going to be to his actual experience of the task.

You can download these visuals here for free:


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-Dr. Monica Jackman, Little Lotus Therapy 


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