The Challenge of “I Can’t”: Rethinking Our Assumptions

Beth Steinberg, co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem

Turning a negative statement to a positive one

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't...you're right.” Henry Ford

Counselor and campers

We’ve all heard the refrain, either personally as parents or in our work lives as formal and informal educators: “I don’t want to do that.” or “She won’t be able to do that.” or “He just can’t.” We may apply this to a participant, student or loved one who doesn’t seem willing to try or to whom we feel is not making a “real” effort to do what we have asked of them.

Whether this perception is the individual’s or our own, the “I can’t, s/he can’t” position stands as a  non-starter. Too often, this expression of inability to accomplish a task presents itself as a behavioral challenge because “I can’t,” leads a potential participant to stand on the sidelines, seemingly bored or to create trouble by behaving in a challenging fashion. However the refusal takes shape, it results in increased stress for both participant and staff.

It’s a nasty cycle, right? And it all started by a simple negative statement, creating what we at Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem call a “negative-energy-loop.” (Learn more here)

Just the other day, a Shutaf staffer was navigating this situation with a teen participant during a training for our summer camp. The Junior Counselor training, which involves personal development, leadership, and learning how to work with kids and a team of counselors and to accept criticism, can be challenging. One of the teens, whose go-to response when presented with something new is, “I don’t want to,” or “I can’t do that,” reacted as anticipated. The staffer, in turn, responded, “He won’t be able to work at camp.”

The staffer brought this to the attention of our Program Director, Marci Tirschwell, who said “If that’s what you say, that’s what will be”, knowing full well that the staffer wanted this participant to succeed in camp. All the staffer needed was some assistance and encouragement in order to think it through differently.

Marci spent some time observing the participant, the staff and the rest of the group during an evening of activities noting that while the participant struggles to take in new information auditorily, the teen is great with visual information, usually waiting to see what the rest of the group does before feeling brave enough to try it out on his own. In the process, the teen often discovers, “I can!”

Marci wondered how to initiate what we at Shutaf term a “mindset shift.” How could she get the staff to believe in the participant’s abilities and help the teen modify his own self-assumptions? She began by reviewing her findings with the staff, sharing her thoughts about the participant’s abilities to be a great Junior Counselor. She slowly unpacked the default reaction of refusal, pointing out what the teen knows and can do as well as his individual learning style. She drew a Venn diagram, or multiple overlapping closed circles, to illustrate the participant, the staff and the intent of the training program.

The staff took the lesson forward using the diagram as a tool for understanding how to reach each participant. When our staff began to recognize that each participant exhibits their own learning style, they approached the situation differently. Their focus became, “I believe in you.”, “You can do this”, and “How can I help you find success?.” This is an approach that has always informed the way we work with every Shutaf participant, with and without disabilities. The participant’s peer group also helped show by example how to work past individual worries by sharing words of encouragement and showing by example how they could each be willing to try something new and find success.

We can all apply this lesson. So often, an individual may say “I can’t,” because that’s what people have always told them. We can begin to make a positive shift - for ourselves and for others - when we look differently at our assumptions about all people and their abilities, with a mindset shift that transforms “problems” into new opportunities for everyone involved. Thus we can see new challenges not as insurmountable, but as new opportunities for everyone involved.

Beth Steinberg is the co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, offering year-round, informal-education activities for children, teens and young adults with disabilities. At Shutaf day camps and evening programs, participants of all abilities and all cultural backgrounds are welcomed and included. Beth accepted the 2017 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B'Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize in the community-nonprofit category for creating and building Shutaf with co-founder Miriam Avraham. Beth teaches and writes about disability issues and the parenting experience, and is also the artistic director of Theater in the Rough, creating new kinds of theatrical experiences in Jerusalem.

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