First, adults must encourage kids to make well-informed decisions. Use these CHOICES R OK guidelines to help set kids up for success:
C—CLEAR AND SPECIFIC—Make sure choices are clear and specific. Sometimes stating an option such as, "Please choose an activity," leaves too much room for broad interpretations. Instead, define choices with clearly stated boundaries: "Choose one of the five activities from the list on the board" is much easier for a child to understand and achieve. If kids v difficulty making choices, there may be too many options, or the boundaries are unclear or broad.
H—HONESTY— Be honest. Make sure all options offered are acceptable. Avoid setting kids up to choose the "right" option or to read your mind. There should be no wrong choices—if you don't want the kids to choose something, don't make it an option. If they must do a particular task, establish that upfront and offer options about what happens next (i.e., wash hands before choosing a snack).
O—OPTIONS INCREASE AS SKILL INCREASES—Increase options as kids can handle them, either by widening the range of choices available or by making the choices more complex.
I—INTRODUCE LIMITS—If a child has difficulty with even a simple choice, add another limit by asking the child to choose within a certain amount of time. Children, especially those who have been over-controlled, need time to practice and develop confidence in their abilities to make positive choices.
C—CONSIDER YOUR LANGUAGE—Your language should be at a level kids can understand. For example, kids do not always understand or respond to sarcasm or when adults use words such as "please" that indicate choices are present if they are not. These approaches send mixed messages to kids and can be confusing.
E—EXPRESS POSITIVELY—Present options in a positive manner. Be careful that choices don't end up as "do it or else." Share the available options rather than those that are not.
S—START SIMPLE—Begin by sharing choices that do not have substantial negative consequences—things like choices of activities, locations, and time, are an excellent place to start.
R—REQUIRE ACTIVE PARTICIPATION—As kids grow and become more capable, encourage participation in creating choices whenever possible. Be prepared to talk them through the process by asking questions such as "What do you think will happen if you choose…?"
O—OPTION TO CHANGE MIND—Depending on your goals, leave room for kids to change their minds if they are disappointed with a choice they have made. If time and management require kids to choose and stick with it, make this clear when presenting options.
K—KEEP TRYING—Integrating choices and teaching decision-making takes practice, especially when kids aren't used to having options presented to them. It may take a few weeks or months to reap the benefits, so don't give up—keep trying!
This article is part of the Choose Choices blog series about helping OST professionals identify and apply youth choice strategies as part of regular program practice.
Next up, we'll explore two models for teaching kids about the decision-making process and how to make well-informed choices.
Contributed by Heidi Ham, vice president of programs and strategy, National AfterSchool Association