In 2015, when I was finishing my undergrad classes in Early Childhood Education, I was introduced to the concept of giving children choices. Honestly, I put it in my toolbox for classroom management only. However, with time, I understand the impact that providing children with choices has on their overall development.
Why Offer Kids Choices?
Well, if I’m being totally honest, to keep your sanity. 😂 The determination of a young child is just unmatched. The confidence they have in arguing about something they’re absolutely wrong about is a teensy bit inspiring to me. But mostly, it makes me roll my eyes. 😉
On another note, it is great for their development. Any chance that we can give a child to practice their independence is ideal. Every choice we give a child allows them to find their voice, raise their confidence, strengthen their analytical skills, cooperate with others, feel heard, and even learn more about themselves.
I feel like I can always link what children need to what adults need. Our independence is important to us, and it’s important to children too.
How To Offer Kids Choices
Would you believe me if I said there’s actually a wrong way to offer choices? 😅 This is why kids can be so tricky. Here are a few simple guidelines when offering children choices:
- Limit to 2-3 choices (definitely 2 for toddlers and preschoolers, up to 3 and even open-ended for older children)
- Offer choices that you’re okay with (for example, when it comes to dinner, if I don’t want to make mac and cheese, I’m not going to give that as a dinner option)
- Offer choices when the child is calm
- Follow through with their choice
- Make it known that if they don’t choose, you will choose for them
- Be consistent (offer children choices often, so they file it as routine)
Appropriate Choices for Toddlers and Preschoolers
I can’t think of anyone who needs choices more than toddlers. 🙃 When you think about it, they just want to explore their world independently, but so much of what they do requires help. I think as many choices we can give toddlers is a win. Aaaaand it cuts back on the power struggles 😏👏
Here are some appropriate choices for a toddler’s development:
- What clothes to wear to school (“Would you like the black pants or the striped pants?”)
- What order to do routines (“Would you like to brush your hair before or after we brush your teeth?”)
- Food (“Would you like some cheese or pretzels?”)
- Activities (“Would you like to play outside or inside?”)
- Books to read
- What toys to play with
- Learning tools (“Would you like to use markers or crayons?”)
- Chores (“Would you like to wipe off the table or put the trash bag in the bin?”)
- Movement (“Would you like to walk there or be carried?”)
- Safety (“Would you like to hold my hand or Grandma’s hand?”)
Appropriate Choices for Older Children
In addition to the list above (with age-appropriate options and the flexibility to add a choice or two more, even open-ended choices), older children have the ability to make more calculated decisions.
My FAVORITE story from when I was in the classroom (1st grade) was when I had a sweet boy who would not stop drawing on the class rug with Expo marker. It was more impulsive than anything, but nonetheless, it was an issue.
I decided that it might sink in a bit more if he chose his consequence. So, I took him in the hallway (I had a student teacher at this point, so I had some time to step out of the classroom for a minute or two) and explained that drawing on the carpet was not working and had happened a few times. I told him that I trusted that he could figure out what it would take for him to learn not to do that. I told him that I would give him a few minutes to think it over. The only thing was that I had to agree with the consequence (like if he said something like no recess, I would disagree).
I’m not kidding, when I went back out in the hall, he said, “I think I should not be able to use Expo markers for a while.” I asked how long he thought would be appropriate and he said, “Two weeks.” I said that we used Expo markers a lot and what would he use instead?
“Paper and pencil.”
I was so proud. Truly. For a seven-year-old to think about what would help the message sink in and come up with something I probably would have chosen myself really warmed my heart.
So, that’s what we did. For two weeks, any time we used Expo markers, he got out a pencil and paper. And he HATED it by the end. But you know what? He didn’t draw on the rug anymore.
That to say, would the consequence have been as valuable if I chose it? I don’t think so. I think he would have learned not to draw on the rug, but we would have missed the confidence boost in him knowing what it would take for him to make correct decisions. We would have missed the opportunity for him to analyze different consequences to see if that would be appropriate. We would have missed the opportunity to support his independence.
Practicing those skills that young, I believe, set the foundation for him to make safe, appropriate decisions as he grows.
So, what choices are appropriate for elementary children?
- Consequences (2-3 choices or open-ended)
- When to do activities (“You can choose to do this work now, or later at home for homework”)
- Where to learn (“Would you like to sit on the rug or in your seat?”)
- How to respond to conflict (“Would you like to talk it out or take some space?” You can also leave this open-ended)
- Food (“What do you think we should have for dinner tonight?”)
- Timing of chores (“Would you like to clean your room before or after lunch?”)
- Extracurricular activities
The Impact of Choices
As a caregiver, I often use choices to avoid a power struggle or meltdown. Giving choices has been my saving grace, but I forget that allowing kids to make choices is so important for their brain development.
Not only does it give them the independence they desire, but it can strengthen the relationship they have with caregivers because they feel seen and respected.
Not only that, but the opportunities they have for decision-making can prepare them for decisions they’ll need to make when they’re even older. I’m speaking specifically about weighing the consequences of decisions. The more practice a child has with determining the effects of their choices will only benefit them as they get older. When they’ve had experiences dealing with wrong choices they made while they were young, they may easily be able to determine effects that are worth it or not when they’re in adolescence.