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Giving Preschoolers Opportunities to Choose

The way we view children determines how we treat them. For ethical and intentional teachers, it is important to examine this part of ourselves in order to see our students for the people they are and can become. Because my belief is that preschool aged children are capable and independent, I give them opportunities to practice their skills and demonstrate their autonomy in the classroom. This way of thinking is echoed throughout many early childhood environments, set up to allow children as much self-sufficiency as possible. By thoughtfully providing children with multiple opportunities to make their own choices and demonstrate their competence, teachers help children to begin to see themselves as capable learners, motivated to find their own solutions to the problems they encounter.

Giving children choice is an art form all in itself. While you want to give them the feeling of empowerment that comes with dictating your own path, there is a limit to how many choices they can make. Providing too many options will always backfire, as the overwhelming possibilities wash over their young brains. Many parents and caregivers have found incredible power in providing two simple choices, both of which they know they can back up. This strategy both simplifies guidance for the adult, while allowing children to feel powerful and in control of their own destiny.

Of course, not everything can be determined by the decisions of a preschooler. In circumstances where they have not yet learned the responsibility required to take care of themselves, choices have to be made for them. When they are so lost in the moment of playing with their friends that they forget to stop and go to the bathroom, and instead have a toileting accident, we have to help impose that requirement that they visit the restroom. So engrossed in their play, many preschoolers would never choose to stop and eat. A seasoned caregiver who knows the consequences of an unfed child will insist that at some point they stop for a snack, whether it is desired or not. Because most children do not understand the cause and effect relationship of their self-care and behavior, they need us to make certain choices for them to ensure that they get through the day in a positive way.

To explain this to their students, I’ve heard many teachers use the phrase, “It’s not a choice.” Teacher talk can be contagious, and I unconsciously picked up the phrase. I found myself using it to try to convince the child who shied away from washing their hands before a meal, the child who refused to come to the table, or the child who resisted rest time. Not surprisingly, I found that reminding them that this routine was “not a choice” did not do much to strengthen my argument. Knowing you don’t have a choice doesn’t make something any more enticing. When you hear that a meeting is mandatory, does it make you more excited to attend? As time went by and I reflected on my use of this statement, I realized that it usually wasn’t very helpful, but instead just reinforced my power over the child. I knew something had to change, because if I want children to see themselves as capable and independent, they need to feel empowered, not powered over.

One day, I caught myself saying it, and in a flash of inspiration I found a way to flip it. I was one-on-one with a student who I knew I would never win over in a battle of wills, in a melt-down moment where she didn’t want to sit down at the lunch table. As I felt the phrase coming out, I just moved through it and explained more: “Lunch is not a choice. Many things at school are a choice, though. At play time, did you choose to play with blocks or in the housekeeping area? Did you choose to play with Addy or Mikaela? Remember at activity time this morning, you got to choose if you wanted to be in the cooking group or the nature walk group? You chose cooking and then you got to choose which fruit you wanted in your parfait! You get to have lots of choices in your day. But what happens if you choose not to eat? You get grumpy, right? We need to eat to take care of our bodies! So let’s go eat some lunch. Hey, you can choose what you’re going to eat, though! Will you choose chicken or apples, I wonder? Let’s go find out.”

To my delight, it worked. My young friend accompanied me to the lunch table, and my approach was forever changed. Although it took a lot more words than I would usually throw at a young child all at once, I was able to help her understand that I was not just trying to take away her autonomy, but that this was a moment in which I was trying to help her make the best choice for her body. In my following interactions with children, I have worked to find better ways of dealing with power struggles over routines than just letting the child know who’s in charge. In the same way as you point out when kids are doing it right rather than when they’re making errors, it helps to take note throughout the day of when your students are making responsible choices for taking care of themselves and others. When the situation arises that they need help making a good choice, I try to simply explain the logical consequences of their options. Sometimes it works and other times it takes much more than that, but either way I am able to demonstrate to the child that I see them as capable of reason and choice, rather than subjects under my control.

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