Capabilities of younger versus older children
Younger children are more likely to:
- focus on one aspect of a situation
- focus on their own position
- look for immediate benefits
- want things now
- act without thinking first
- make simple distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong
- make decisions based on a whim.
As they develop, children are more able to:
- see things from different angles
- see other people’s points of view
- think ahead and plan
- focus on longer-term goals
- consider consequences
- apply more complex values to their own thinking
- use reasoned strategies for making decisions.
Steps for good decision-making
Because children often focus on their immediate needs and wants (and often don’t consider long-term consequences), they need lots of adult guidance to learn to choose wisely.
A good decision is one that is most likely to lead to a positive outcome for everyone concerned. By talking through the steps of decision-making, adults can motivate children to think through their choices. Adults can also help them understand the important things to consider when making decisions.
Don’t forget that children and young people ’s decision-making abilities develop with experience and maturity. Start with simple choices and gradually build up to bigger, more-complex problem-solving as their capabilities and skills improve.
Key steps in the decision-making process
- Work out the problem: We all constantly hear, see and feel many more messages than we can pay attention to. A child or young person might pay attention to a message that confirms their thoughts about themselves (for example, “I’m no good at this”), or that fits with something they’ve been told (for example, “That’s not a good thing to do”), or that makes them feel good or unhappy (for instance, “I feel scared when someone talks loudly”). The first step is to help the person identify and label their feelings so that they can understand the problem.
- Plan to solve the problem: Depending on the age and abilities of the child or young person, prompt them to brainstorm solutions. If they can’t think of any, suggest a few for them to choose from. Think of as many options as you can and then talk about what might happen with each one. Even if options seem unworkable, include them, as this encourages children and young people to consider different solutions before choosing what to do next. Remember, it might be enough just to notice and comment on the person’s emotion to solve the problem.
- Do something about it: Sometimes the child or young person will need your support or they might act with the reassurance you’re nearby. As they get older, children and young people will be able to do more problem-solving themselves and let you know how they go later.
Ask the child or young person about the choice they made – did it help or not, do you need to find a different way to go? This is important, because sometimes an adult’s suggestion to a problem won’t work. If you don’t check back and show the child or young person how to try again, they may lose an opportunity to learn, or lose confidence in your capacity to help them.
Strategies for educators
The way adults interact with young children is very important to emerging thinking, decision-making and problem-solving skills.
These skills will be needed in all areas of life, including making decisions for health, social relationships, and solving educational problems. From birth, children gain confidence when adults provide gentle guidance and, over time, encourage them to take reasonable responsibility for themselves.
Here are some strategies to support children’s decision-making and problem-solving skills.
Provide a loving and safe environment
Loving and responsive educators naturally create an environment for children in which they can explore and practise making decisions. It also helps when children are in a predictable environment where they feel safe and notice patterns in their day-to-day.
Create opportunities for symbolic play
Symbolic play boosts thinking and problem-solving skills.
This is when children use objects to represent something else (for example, using a hairbrush to represent a microphone). Children think creatively during this kind of play. As they work out roles and rules for the game, children learn how to negotiate with each other. They must hold several things in mind at once, such as their own role, other children’s roles, the rules of the game, and what they want to do next. Symbolic play stimulates basic skills that mature into the ability to organise play, think things through and cope with feelings.
Model planning skills
Being able to think ahead and plan helps with problem-solving and decision-making.
This ability begins in infancy and develops over the first few years. Educators can make a difference by modelling planning in their own behaviour, talking aloud as they plan, and giving children chances to practise planning in ways they can manage.
Play games and tell stories
Toddlers love ‘peek-a-boo’, ‘hide and seek’, and games where they can copy each other’s actions.
These games help children build on thinking and planning skills. Preschool children like to play games like ‘Simon says’ and ‘Statues’, which require them to use self-control and think before they act. While telling and reading stories, children learn to think ahead when adults stop and ask them things like “What might happen next?” or “What would be a different ending?”
Children benefit when they:
- are given the opportunity to practise decision-making from as young as possible
- have opportunities to try things and succeed (this builds self-esteem)
- are encouraged to learn from mistakes
- can practise attending to a task (by breaking it down into small sections they can complete and achieve).
Be You Professional Learning
Learn about social and emotional learning (SEL) and teaching for resilience in the Learning Resilience domain.
Strategies for school teachers and staff
Effective decision-making skills are important for learning in many areas
When children and young people are supported to make responsible choices at school, it enables them to manage their own behaviour and relate more effectively to others. There are many opportunities to teach and reinforce decision-making skills at school. They can arise in the classroom, during social activities, at playtime and in choosing how to behave on the school grounds.
You can help students to manage their behaviour by teaching and encouraging decision-making skills in a range of situations.
Teach skills for decision-making and goal-setting
For younger students:
- Give them opportunities to make simple choices. Ask students to explain the reasons for their choices so they develop evaluation skills.
- Comment on the actions of characters in stories (for example, “Do you think Charlie made a good decision? Do you think he should have done something different?”).
- Model the steps for decision-making by talking through the issue to be solved.
For older students:
- Explicitly teach the steps of decision-making and provide opportunities for practising them.
- Build goal-setting and decision-making steps into assigned learning tasks by making them an explicit component of task instructions. This grows children and young people’s capacity for self-regulated learning, which has been shown to enhance academic performance.
Involve students in decision making
With guidance, even younger students can be involved in deciding on classroom and school rules.
Children and young people accept that adults will cast the ﬁnal vote but appreciate being consulted and having the opportunity to contribute to the rules. In addition to building children and young people’s decision-making skills, this allows them to own and accept rules as necessary and fair. Giving students some choice over what and how they learn can enhance motivation and responsibility.
Encourage decision-making to promote responsible behaviour
By asking constructive questions, you can prompt children and young people to reflect on their choices.
Asking, “Was that a good choice?” makes children and young people evaluate their actions. Asking, “What’s a better way to handle it?” prompts them to choose a better option. Asking, “What can we do about this?” encourages them to discuss the problem and, with your help, think up strategies for managing it.
Support growing independence by fostering decision-making
Students often expect school staff to make decisions for them.
This sometimes occurs even for relatively minor matters that children and young people could resolve for themselves. Teaching and reinforcing the steps of decision-making supports students’ independence and conﬁdence in their own judgment.
For example, a child or young person who is given a speciﬁc suggestion in response to the question: “What should we play?”, learns that adults are good at determining what they should do. But when the response is, “Let’s see, what ideas do you have?”, they’re encouraged to take responsibility for generating options. Further scaffolding can help the child or young person to evaluate the options and make a choice, while increasing conﬁdence for future independent decision-making.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). Building Core Capabilities for Life: The Science Behind the Skills Adults Need to Succeed in Parenting and in the Workplace. Boston: Harvard University. Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/building-core-capabilities-for-life/.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2018). Core SEL competencies. Chicago: CASEL. Retrieved from https://casel.org/core-competencies/.
Children and young people gradually learn skills for making good decisions.
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Assist families to foster mental health and wellbeing.