Child development specialists Carla Poole, Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., and Ellen Booth Church discuss how support and guidance from teachers and parents can help children with choice making. Poole, Miller and Church advise parents and educators on what they can do to help children hone their choice-making skills at various levels of development.

0 to 2: Tiny Choice Makers

Four-month-old Jessie shifts her gaze from her loving caregiver Laura, to another adult who has just stopped by. Jessie stares at the newcomer, then quickly looks back at Laura. There is no mistaking Jessie's look: she is clearly letting Laura know that she is choosing her over the newcomer.

The soft, round eyes of early infancy are powerful communicators. Long before a baby has language or motor control, she expresses her desires with a look or with subtle body movements, like a gentle relaxing of the fingers. When we take the time to observe and respond to Baby's signals, Baby feels eager to communicate her preferences. Baby is learning how to make thoughtful choices — not an easy skill to acquire!

Infants also use their senses to make choices. Eight-month-old Cara, for instance, often crawls over to play with soft, fuzzy puzzle pieces. Twelve month-old Ethan initiates games of peek-a-boo with his caregiver since they share laughter and smiles, he chooses to do it again and again.

At about 12 months, infants begin to think about choices. A developing sense of object permanence, that things continue to exist even when they are out of sight, helps toddlers hold onto their choices. For instance, Natalie's face lights up whenever she sees Katherine, another 18-month-old. After repeatedly bumping into each other in the book corner, they have struck up a friendship and purposely seek each other out. They enjoy sitting together and watching each other turn the pages, pointing and babbling. Even at this early age, their common interests have led them into a budding friendship — the first of many!

Toddlers "Step Up" Their Choice Making

Toddlers are famous for their "want it all, do it all" approach to life. It takes considerable self-control for a child to choose one toy from a variety of toys. Predictable routines and limited choices help him begin to make thoughtful choices. During a calm moment, ask the toddler to pick one toy out of a pair. This helps the toddler think about what he does want. Gradually, the toddler develops the awareness that he can make choices. This is an important step in his journey toward becoming more independent.

Two-year-olds also start to make choices about their behavior. For instance, if a two-year-old is happily playing with his friends when it is time for him to leave, his response will be somewhere between cooperation, mild protest, or strong protest. It helps him to think about his response when you reason with him and respect his feelings of disappointment. Offer him choices. Perhaps he can walk or ride in the stroller. This way he feels that he has some say in the matter and is more likely to choose to cooperate. If he is rushed and moved along with no explanation, he feels pushed into a corner; he has no choice but to have a temper tantrum! Likewise, if it is left up to him to decide when he should leave, he may feel overwhelmed by too great a choice.

It is easier to build a cooperative relationship with a two-year-old when he has some control over age-appropriate choices. This way he can feel good about his decision to cooperate.

What You Can Do

It takes time for toddlers to develop self-control while they're learning to make choices. Here are some tricks to keep in mind:

  • Offer toddlers a small selection of toys to choose from.
  • Remember to rotate toys so the selection remains interesting.
  • Make sure that each toy has a place. An orderly environment helps toddlers focus and choose one toy at a time. It takes time for toddlers to use language to talk about the choices. Remember to give them the time they need.

3 to 4: Choices for Pleasure and Friendship

Patti, a young three-year-old, emphatically tells Madeline, "I need the red ball. It's mine." Still slightly egocentric, Patti only sees the choice to share or not from her narrow point of view. On another part of the playground, four-year-old Kon says to his buddy Mark, "You throw me the ball. Then I'll throw it back." The more pro-social four-year-olds choose to play ball together. They reason: "This way we both get turns and don't have to wait."

Three-year-olds, such as Patti, often choose to play with something because they like the activity or materials. Many four-year-olds, like Kon and Mark, decide to play with something because they enjoy it, but also because a friend is there.

Choices and Consequences

Two four-year-olds argue loudly. "Your truck smashed my block house," accuses Benjy. "You built your house on the road!" retorts Niles. It doesn't appear that either boy wishes to choose to be responsible for his own behavior or the mess of the scattered blocks. However fours are beginning to develop a good sense of reasoning and are capable of using their negotiation skills to solve problems. After the boys identify the problem, they can brainstorm some solutions to try out together such as, "Let's haul the smashed-up blocks away in the dump truck."

Sometimes preschoolers choose not to react right away, or they are so focused on a task that they forget to respond. Concentrating very hard on a puzzle, three-year-old Melissa jumps up and sits in another chair. She points to the original chair and says, "Look! A wet chair!" Melissa was so involved with her puzzle that she waited too long to go to the bathroom. Interestingly, she does not attribute the wetness of the chair to herself.

On a field trip to the zoo, Anthony's teacher ties his balloon to his wrist and carefully explains to him, "Do not untie your balloon. If you do, it will go up in the air." Four-year-old Anthony makes several choices. At first, he pays attention to the teacher's advice. Then, feeling independent and curious, he unties the balloon. He quickly shouts, "Help! It's flying away." An unhappy child is left with the consequences of his decision.

Preferences and Personalities

While three-year-olds like to please adults, they also have strong likes and dislikes. Scott refuses to take his jacket off. Feeling angry, he rants, "Mommy didn't let me choose. She picked the dinosaur shirt. I wanted to wear my tiger shirt." Simple choices are important to three-year-olds.

Fours need to be in charge of decision making too. Even though Seth often appears fearless, he needs to be allowed to do things that help him deal with his fears: "I want to put my rest mat by the window, I don't like the dark corner."

Certain preschoolers need lots of time to observe before they can make their decisions. Such "field-sensitive" youngsters watch how others handle materials. Beth Anne asks her friend, "How does the shaving cream feel?" before she decides to finally touch it. However "field-independent" children jump right in and mess around with the shaving cream without giving it a thought.

Learning Styles and Choice Making

Children's learning styles also affect how they make choices. A child might be very "impulsive." For example, Matt loves to take risks. "Look how fast I can pedal my trike through the puddle!" Matt would never consider going around the water. Others, like Beth Anne, are persistent: "I can't fasten the roof with glue, so now I will try a hammer and nails." Some children are very responsible. Beth Anne chooses to clean up the Legos before going to the art area. She says, "I don't want the pieces to get lost."

Preschoolers are able to make reasonable choices if adults help them by not giving too many directions at one time and making sure that the choices are age-appropriate and clearly understood.

What You Can Do

Give children opportunities to explain their reasons for choices.

  • At snack, offer a variety of fruit. Discuss choices.
  • Think out loud as you explain why you are making daily choices. "Since it's raining today, we'll ride trikes in the big room instead of going outside."
  • Don't offer choices if there aren't any. If all children are expected to wash their hands, state your expectation: "Come wash your hands now," rather than asking them, "Would you like to wash your hands now?"
  • Make it nonthreatening for children to act on their choices. Let them know they can verbally give their reasons without someone making fun of them.
  • Encourage cooperative learning choices. Set up situations where children can accomplish tasks alone, or let them determine that it's easier to do the project with others (e.g. dumping the water tub).
  • Read books such as "The Three Little Pigs," in which characters make choices.

5 to 6: Minor Choices, Major Decisions

After meeting time, Brad says, "Hey, Jesse, let's play together. Do you want to play in the block area or the water table?" At the same time, Grace asks, "Wanna play dress up, Jesse?" Looking perplexed, Jesse looks around the room and heads to the easel to paint by himself!

Conscious Decision Making

Which learning center to play in ... who to play with ... what color to paint with ... are just some of the many choices kindergarten children make in school each day. Choice making is an essential part of life. Human beings make myriad choices from moment to moment. How often do we notice the process we engage in so naturally? We might notice the big decisions such as major purchases and commitment, but do we notice the smaller ones, such as which grocery line to stand in?

Five- and six-year-old children are becoming more conscious of decision making. They may even take a great deal of time to ponder over a choice and keep the entire class waiting! Children feel a certain luxury in this new responsibility and take it very seriously. Choosing what to wear, what activity to do, and whom to set up a play date with can be monumental decisions for a five- and six-year-old. In the process, children are defining their personality and creating an individuated self.

Decisions! Decisions!

One reason children this age are paying more attention to making choices is because they are free to make more choices than ever before! As children mature, we trust their choices more, so we give them increased opportunities to demonstrate their ability to choose.

Kindergartners are developing a sense of themselves in relationship to others in a way that informs their choice making. By five and six, children will begin to think of other people's feelings, desires, and needs as well as their own. That is not to say that they always heed them ... but they are aware of them! You might notice a child who is trying to choose whom to play with and she may notice a sad expression on a friend's face and respond in his favor.

Of course, there are still many choices that kindergarten children are not ready for. Most specifically, five- and six-year-old children need the guidance of adults in issues that relate to safety and health. What to eat, where to go by themselves, how to cross streets, how to dress for outdoor play — these are still areas in which children need some direction.

The trick is to give children choices within the boundaries of what you consider to be appropriate and acceptable choices. So you might ask, "Do you want to wear your red boots or your rubbers to go outside in the rain?" or "Do you want milk or juice with your snack?" This process gives children necessary practice in making choices within the safety of your judgment. You will also find that children respond better to your directions when they are given the power to make choices.

What You Can Do

  • Focus on choices at group time. Discuss the activities that will be occurring in each of your learning centers in order to invite children to make informed choices. Create a learning center choice board and place it at children's eye level. Children can hang their photo tag in the area they choose to play in each day.
  • Include children in the process of choosing class projects and themes. Solicit topics they would like to know more about and then ask them to choose how they want to explore the topic.
  • Discuss the choices children are not ready to make on their own yet. Encourage children to think about why they are not old enough to make some choices and decisions on their own.