Home | resource library | Newsletter 2023, Issue 2 – Choice-Making and Children: Hints to Build this Skill
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Your child is ready to start making their own choices. It’s true! Every child can learn to make choices for themselves. It might be a little scary for parents at first, and it will lead to changes in your daily routine, but with your encouragement, your child can do this.

It’s an Important Skill

Choice-making is deciding which option is the best one for you. Evidence shows that adults with disabilities can learn to exercise choices, apply self-determination, problem-solve and advocate for themselves if they are offered the chance to do so. In fact, a person’s quality of life is better if they have control over everyday personal choices.

Learning to make choices early in a child’s life encourages them to increase their independence, learn to problem solve, learn to set goals, become more self-reliant, and communicate their interests and preferences to others.

This choice-making skill improves with practice. Children with intellectual or other developmental disabilities may need extra time and effort to develop choice-making skills. Practice at any age will help your child make gains.

A More Self-Determined Life

Choice-making is important because it can lead to a more self-determined life as an adult. Self-determination means people have the right to be in control of their own lives and make choices for their future. You do this by speaking up for yourself, figuring out what you do and don’t like, asking for help, trying new things, and taking responsibility for your choices. It’s what we all strive for as adults, and this includes people with special health care needs and disabilities.

Independence for children with disabilities can be a long path. By encouraging them to start making choices for themselves, you will help them along this path to independence and a more self-determined life.

Ideas to Get Your Child Started

We make choices every day. From small things like what to eat for lunch to larger decisions like where to take a family vacation. There are lots of ways to help your child practice choice-making.

Talk Through Your Choice-Making Process

Choice-making for children can start by hearing how adults do it. When you’re running errands with your child, talk aloud about things like which lane to choose at the bank, whether you should go to the grocery store or pharmacy first, or what to make for dinner when you get home.

Look for Teachable Moments

If you and your child are waiting at the dentist’s office, let them know they will be asked which flavor toothpaste they want. Ask them why they like this flavor and if they might want to try something new.

Discuss the Options

When you’re offering your child a choice, explain what each option will mean to them. For example, watching a movie now is fine, but it means they won’t get any screen time before bed. These explanations set the stage for understanding the cause-and-effect the choices they make.

Step up to Bigger Choices

When your child is ready, try having them make a choice that will have a longer-lasting impact, like which sneakers to buy for gym class. These will empower your child to make more choices for themselves.

Create Safety                                                                    

Your child may worry that the choice they make isn’t one you agree with—and this can create pressure for them. When you are early in practicing choice-making, only offer options that you are comfortable with—even if it means dessert before dinner.

Be prepared to support whichever option your child selects. Early on is the time to feel safe in making   choices, build confidence in their own ability to make decisions, and recognize that the wrong decision might be less ideal, but not catastrophic.

Ideas to Practice Choice-Making with Your Child

Motivation Leads to Participation                                                                                                                                                  

You know your child’s likes and dislikes. Use this information to start choice-making. Start by offering options you know they’re excited about. The important thing is that you’re letting your child take part. The ability to have a voice, in whatever form, will motivate your child to participate.

There’s Always Time                                                                                                                                                                         

For busy parents who are not sure if you can add one more task to your daily load, practicing choice-making will not take any time out of your day. Every time you communicate with your child is an opportunity to make a choice.

The key is to find opportunities in your daily routine or activities. For those with younger children, ask which book they want to read first, or if they want to wear their blue or red pajamas at bedtime.

Children who are nonspeaking can also learn to make choices through the same daily activities. Look at your child’s responses through their body language or other cues. Their actions can help you understand their preferences.  

Grow the Choices                                                                                                                                                                          

After your child understands either/or choices (either an apple or a banana), it’s time to broaden the number of options you offer. Make some of their choices open-ended questions like, what do you want for a snack? As you’re preparing the snack you can talk about what you would choose and why. Be sure that you honor their selection. It’s important for children to recognize that there are multiple right answers to these questions.

When your child is ready, have them take part when decisions are being made for them. Start to involve your child in teams, like the IEP and CLTS planning meetings, and support their participation. Having your child take part in these meetings will build self-confidence and create a safe space for them to share their preferences. This is also an opportunity to have your child practice sharing opinions with others.

Thank you to Molly Murphy for her help with this content!                                                                   

Molly Murphy, PhD, BCBA-D, is a special education teacher, behavior analyst and Director of the University of Wisconsin’s Waisman Center Autism Treatment Programs. 



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