Offering Choices:

What, How, and When

By Dr. Hattie Harvey

Young children want to feel in control and have autonomy, and the use of choice making can be a powerful strategy to increase children’s cooperation, engagement, and motivation as well as make your life easier! Allowing a child to make choices throughout the day helps to foster problem-solving skills, build self-esteem, learn self-control, and develop responsibility. Offering choices is also an effective method for preventing challenging behaviors or conflicts as it allows a child to indicate their preference, which gives them a feeling of control. This in turn motivates them to be more engaged, and helps them learn to make decisions.

How do I provide choices?

When providing a choice, it must be reasonable, specific and meaningful. Choices that are not legitimate in the child’s view or are too vague will not be helpful. For example, rather than “You can share the car or you can go to time out,” offer, “You can both play with the car together on the track or I can help you find another car to play with.” This offers the child a reasonable and clear choice, and it gives them a sense of autonomy in decision making while also teaching problem-solving skills.

Choices can be offered in a variety of ways such as:

• Verbal choices (“Do you want to wear the yellow or blue shirt?”)
• Choices using picture representations, such as a menu board of actual photos or drawings
• Choices using actual objects (showing the child the yellow or blue shirt)

It is always a good idea to limit the choices provided, as this will help the child make a selection. If too many choices are offered, the child may feel overwhelmed. Also, be conscious of adding “OK?” to the end of a direction, as this suggests a choice when it may not be a choice. For example, “it is time to clean up, OK?” suggests that the children have a choice to clean up; rather, offer a stated choice such as, “It is time to clean up; you can choose to clean up the books or the blocks first." Again, the more specific you can be the easier it will be for the child to respond!

When is a good time to provide choices?

Providing choices can be integrated throughout the day and are not limited to certain situations or activities. One suggestion is to identify if there are times of the day or situations which are more difficult for the child and consider what choices could be offered.

The following are some considerations of when choices could be offered:

• During mealtimes – “Do you want a banana or an apple?”
• During routines – for example, at the grocery store “Do you want to ride in the cart or walk next to me?”
• Within activities – “Do you want to use crayons or markers?”
• During transitions – “Do you want to walk or hop to the car?”

The important thing to remember is that you are helping the child to make and accept their choices, which is building their confidence toward being a happy, independent child!


Dr. Hattie Harvey is an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage and serves as a mental health consultant for Head Start. She is a licensed psychologist and a Nationally Credentialed School Psychologist and works with families and educators on promoting social-emotional development and learning.