“I want to have my diaper changed after my brother”

“I’ll start my diet after the weekend”

Both sentences reflect choice and sense of control. But are separated by the time and the experiences that turn us from a child who chooses into an adult that decides. The first one is usually prompted by someone who gives the child – even within an inevitable event or routine (like changing a diaper) – the possibility to choose (do you want now or after your brother?). The second is, in most cases, the person who identifies and initiates this opportunity (in this case the possibility to procrastinate). This achievement of autonomy depends on the context, how much and how it awakens and enables us to choose.

In this post, we talk about expanding and structuring choice-making opportunities in preschool classrooms.

What is the importance of choice-making opportunities in preschool routines?

To create opportunities for choice-making entails a sequence of actions that include:

  1. give the child more than one option;
  2. allow an option selection based on personal preferences;
  3. give the selected option.

More than a set of actions, choice-making opportunities give the child a sense of control and greater context predictability. It is, for this reason, a condition considered as a precursor of self-determination – in terms of the sense and ability to direct one’s own life. In addition to the obvious and long-lasting effects on the promotion of self-determination, there are positive results that, in the immediate aftermath, stem from choice-making opportunities. This message’s motto can be used as an example. How many times changing the diaper turns into a fight for power between the adult and the child? The opportunity “do you want now or after your brother?” gives the child some control, even knowing that the diaper will be changed.

Literature [1, 2, 3] shows us that opportunities to choose are effective strategies in behavior management. When tasks are preceded by choices, children:

  • stay engaged for longer periods and in more autonomous ways;
  • present more pro-social and less problematic behaviors;
  • relate better with each other and with the teacher.

Being agreed that choice-making opportunities increase the quality of preschool contexts, their intentional and systematic implementation has been highlighted particularly in the educative journey of children with atypical development. Due to personal and contextual factors, children with atypical development experience more restrictions in the development of self-determination, in general, and in the competence to make choices, in particular [2, 4]. Therefore, there is a greater need to expand and structure these opportunities in their everyday life.

How to promote choice-making opportunities?

In order to expand choice-making opportunities, it is important to start by mapping all the preschool routines and identify in each moment the situations where the adult can prompt and structure the choice. We can think of and promote different kinds of choices [1, 5]:

  • Where – the place where the child will do the task or play (e.g. do you want to listen to the story at the table or on the floor?).
  • When – the moment when the child will start or finish the task or play (e.g. you have chosen your colors, are you ready to start? How far are you going to paint before taking a break? What do you want to do first?).
  • With what – the specific materials the child needs to complete the task or play (e.g. do you want to use colored pencils or markers?).
  • With whom – the people with whom the child will play or do the task (e.g. do you want to sit with me or do you prefer to be near your friend?).
  • What – the activity or play in which the child will be involved or perform (e.g. what do you want to do next?).

To support and structure the skill of “choice-making” it is important to [1, 3, 5]:

  • give small and tangible choices about the next steps; for example, promote choice-making during one activity, with options that are within the child’s physical or visual range;
  • establish, first, a limited number of options to choose; for example, start by presenting only two or three options (e.g., “do you want to go to the library, the pretend play or the garage?”);
  • show every option pointing at them, using a related object as reference or giving visual information;
  • be consistent in the presentation and response given to the choice; for example, keep the same options in a certain area; and respond to the child’s choice giving the selected option;
  • combine gradually and sequentially other types of choices; for example, when the child chooses the material to use (with what), give the child the possibility to also choose where (in the classroom) he/she wants to put  the selected option in action.

In this post, we show that promoting choice-making opportunities doesn’t mean giving up on routine, planning or activities scheduling, but instead, giving children a sense of control over implicit variants in everyday moments. It means giving the children power to influence activities or tasks through choice.

It is certain that these simple and concrete choices don’t have much meaning when compared to those that will need to be made in the future; however, this exercise of choice-making is a fundamental precursor of decision making, problem solving, and goal setting in adult life.

And now? Which text do you choose to read (what)? Before or after coffee (when)? In the living room or the office (where)? (…)


Post written by Mónica Silveira Maia, in collaboration with Joana Baptista Borges – Pedagogical Director and Preschool Teacher at Quinta Amarela.



[1] Jolivette, K., Stichter, J., Silisky, S., Scott, T., & Ridgley, R (2002). Naturally occurring opportunities for preschool children with and without disabilities to make choices. Education and Treatment of Children, 25(4), 396-414. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42899719

[2] Jolivette, K., Stichter, J., & McCormick, K. (2002). Making choices – improving behavior – engaging in learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34(3), 24–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/004005990203400303

[3] Green, K., Mays, N., & Jolivette, K. (2011). Making choices: A proactive way to improve behaviors for young children with challenging behaviors. Beyond Behavior, 20, 25–31. https://gseuphsdlibrary.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/making-choices.pdf

[4] Palmer, S., et al (2012). Foundations for self-determination in early childhood: An inclusive model for children with disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 33(1), 38–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/0271121412445288

[5] Borges, J. (2015). A expansão sistematizada de oportunidades de escolha como estratégia de suporte à participação (Dissertação de Mestrado não publicada) [The systematized expansion of opportunities to choose as a strategy that supports participation (Unpublished Master’s dissertation)]. Instituto politécnico do Porto, Porto, Portugal. https://recipp.ipp.pt/handle/10400.22/6775

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Choice-making opportunities – how to promote self-determination in childhood?

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