In Teaching with Love and Logic, Jim Fay and David Funk recount an amazing scene from a master teacher who opined that her kids did better with choice, no matter how trivial or superficial the choice was. To demonstrate her point, she hands out the daily work to her math students, and one of them says, “Ms. ___, what’s our choice today?” She said, “You can either write the answers on the back of the page or on the front.” That was it. The kids still had to do all the work. The teacher still maintained control of the curriculum. But just having any choice motivated the kids by giving them a sense of ownership over what they had to do.

Choices in work with kids can be big and substantive: What are you going to study? How are you going to demonstrate your mastery? But they don’t have to be. If a student really needs to do certain work, let’s say, learn, practice and master reading words with silent e in them, you can still give them choices. How, you say? I’m so glad you asked.

utzie cushion

Utzie Cushion

First, when kids walk into my office, they have a choice of sitting in a chair, a chair with an utzie cushion, or on an exercise ball. Not only does this start them off with a choice (and gain their mostly not-cool ed. therapist a couple cool points for the ball), it allows them to choose what their body needs. You’d think every kid would choose the exercise ball, if only for the novelty. But there are a good number of kids who need to feel more grounded and solid. But the kids who want the ball, need the ball. They don’t need an occupational therapist to tell them that they need more vestibular stimulation, or that the work of balancing the ball will actually calm their nervous system, wake up the part of their brain that manages their alertness, and let them focus better. They just know, dude, this feels good! I also don’t get on the bouncers to stop bouncing or the rockers to stop rocking. As long as they can attend, I figure their brain knows what it wants. They would never get this chance to self-regulate if my office weren’t already set up to offer them a choice.

Next, unless there is a really good reason why work has to be completed in a certain order, I always show my kiddos what we need to get done, and then ask them what they want to do first. This immediately lowers their anxiety, since they almost always pick the easiest thing, and it gives them a sense of control, another anxiety-buster. I heard this referred to at a conference long ago as the “pick your poison” choice. The presenter said, “You know, like ‘do you want to brush your teeth first or change into your pjs first.” The child is still going to do both, but choosing which comes first makes it all more acceptable.

Felt tips and Ball Points and Highlighters, Oh my!

Felt tips and Ball Points and Highlighters, Oh my!

Then, I have a choice of writing utensils. You would not believe how excited some kids get to learn that today they are allowed to write in pen! But beyond the pencil/pen choice, I have a set of ballpoint pens in about ten colors, a set of felt-tip pens in the same, and a small set of highlighters. If a student happens to be a pencil person, I have regular ones and mechanical. Every so often, I do have to limit how many times a kiddo can change colors, if the choosing gets too complicated, but even those who decide to do each paragraph in a different color are usually just fine. And the motivation they get from switching between green and pink and blue and magenta (but not orange, ‘cause, you know, that’s their least favorite color) is well worth the extra couple seconds it takes most of them to switch it up.

Who do you want to be today?

Who do you want to be today?

Lastly, I have a huge selection of fun game pieces for kids to choose from to play my board games. The most fun are little plastic figurines called Good Luck Minis from SafariLtd.  You find these in bins in all sorts of gift shops and toy stores. They are usually something like 14¢. I have to admit, they have become a bit of an obsession for me. Anytime I see some at a store, I go through the bin looking for any that I don’t own. It’s really fun for the kids to be able to pick a mountain lion or a ladybug or a blow fish. So much more choice than, “What color do you want to be this time?”

So, there you go. Four really easy ways to give kids choice in your work with them without throwing your plans into disarray. Remember that choice pays off big dividends in student motivation, ownership and feelings of self-efficacy. All that for a bunch of colored pens and an exercise ball? Oh yeah.

copyright Diana Kennedy 2014