As individuals, we tend to interpret inconsistencies in someone's behavior as a sign that a person "can" do a task if only they are motivated enough.
For example, let's say my middle school child sometimes pulls out an A on an English paper, but mostly gets C's. I may say, "Well, he can get A's if he wants to." Or maybe, my preschooler whines and cries about cleaning up her room saying "I don't know how!" even though I have seen her do it before. And I say, "Well if you wanted to get it done, you would."
We interpret inconsistent behavior as having to do with will or motivation, "wanting to" behave in a certain way or achieve a certain task. However, inconsistency can also be a sign of a weakness in ability or an actual skills deficit. For example, executive function is a brain ability that involves things like organization, attention to detail, performing multiple steps in a large task, getting started, finishing a project, persevering through a difficult task, etc. When we have difficulty in a particular area of executive function, we can "pull off" a behavior with great effort sometimes, but may be unable to consistently perform at that level. Maybe my middle school child has trouble with study habits or my preschooler has trouble initiating a multi-step task without someone cuing her to the next step.
Picture this, I ask you if it is possible for you to work at your job wearing a 50 lb vest. Maybe you say, "Well. I guess it's possible." Or I ask my friend if she can run a marathon. She says, "Yeah, I ran one last weekend." Then I ask if it is possible for you to work every day with an extra 50 pound weight, or ask my friend if she can run a marathon every day. The answer is "No!" Why not! I've seen you do it before. I know you CAN do it, so why don't you do it regularly and consistently.
Sometimes, if a task is difficult for us, and requires great effort, we just can't accomplish it all the time. Just think if we used maximum effort all day, every day, for every task. We would not be able to make it through the long haul.
So consider this--next time you see your child exhibit inconsistent behavior, consider whether they need some help to pull off the behavior successfully and consistently. For example, maybe my middle schooler needs more hands on help with study habits and paper organization, or maybe my preschooler needs a picture schedule so she knows what things to clean up in her room to get the job done.
If you are a detective, finding inconsistency might just lead to a plan that will put you and your kids on a more successful path.
For more information on executive function see my past blog book review.