Can Children Really Handle Choice Theory?
The following question was posted in response to The Ship Is Turning, the recent post from Jan. 10. What ideas or insights can you share with Anonymous?
My brother is a social worker who started in education at Lincoln High School. He is now in charge of taking this program to other schools in the district. When talking to him over Christmas, he expressed frustration in dealing with the younger students – 5th and below – that aren’t really self-aware yet. I have expressed this frustration to him before, but it fell on deaf ears until he experienced it himself. We concluded that while we might not be able to get them be self-aware and see the choices they are making, we are planting those seeds and giving them tools and strategies and a mental framework that they can build upon as they become self-aware. I’ve found that some of my 5th graders really struggle to reflect and think about themselves and their choices and actions – in my opinion it is because they are developmentally not “there” yet. Do you have suggestions or resources in helping the younger students in this process? I start with relationship, and continue with relationship, but are there other ways to help the students to think through their thinking and their choices?
You have asked a great question, an important question. How soon can children understand the concepts of choice theory and how can adults – both at home and at school – help them understand and practice these concepts?
Glasser used to say that there is nothing about choice theory that a six year old cannot understand. For the last five years I have been closely observing my two grandchildren, now ages 2 and 5, and I can say that I agree with him on this point. I have watched as one of them has an emotional meltdown over a perceived slight or problem – maybe the French toast was pre-cut, rather than allowing them to try and cut it, or maybe the syrup was poured for them, rather than them being allowed to pour it, or something else of a similarly serious nature – and then been impressed as my daughter or my wife patiently teaches them to put their frustration into words. Rather than responding to their seeming unreasonableness with anger or disgust – “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” – their feelings were acknowledged and they were coached toward stating what they wanted. They were beginning to learn the Caring Habit step of negotiating.
If a fifth-grader is struggling with the process of reflecting and making a good choice, I don’t think it is because he is developmentally “not there yet.” I think it has more to do with not having been given a chance to learn and practice the skill sets of self-evaluation, communicating, and being responsible for his own behavior. So what about these skill sets and how can we pass them on?
What You Think Matters
My daughter, who I think is an incredible parent, even though she disagrees (what does she know?), at one time described to me how she wants to come across to her boys – whether they were babies, toddlers, or young children – in a way that conveys her openness to being influenced by them. In other words, she wants them to know that she can learn from them, that she is open to what they think and what they believe. Wow! I thought. Imagine the implications of this way of being on the life of a young child.
Transparently Live Internal Control
There are few things as powerful as living by example. Along these lines, Ellen White wrote that “We must be what we want our students to become.” And more than just silently living the principles of choice theory, we need to explain how we are working through a challenge or what we are thinking as we self-evaluate. When it comes to reading and critical thinking skills, there is a teaching technique called Think Aloud. A teacher doing a Think Aloud will read from a text or reading selection, but will stop and comment on hard to understand passages or evasive vocabulary and literally show students how they process as they read. We assume that students know how to be thoughtful readers, but this often isn’t the case at all. Along the same lines, children will benefit greatly as we Think Aloud about the ideas of choice theory.
Invite and Nurture Self-Evaluation
Children are used to being told what to do, others planning for them, and others grading them on their performance. Someone decided what they will learn and how they will learn it. We shouldn’t be too surprised if children seem to balk at the idea of responsibility and reflecting on the course of action to take. We have sought to control children, often with the idea of doing what is best for them and protecting them, but it leaves them with no practice at self-evaluating their situation and deciding where to go from there. I think children can be very fast learners when it comes to self-evaluation if we give them chances to do so. Even toddlers can be asked what they think the best solution is. In the school setting, a scoring rubric is an excellent tool to promote self-evaluation. Along with listing the assignment criteria and benchmarks for levels of performance, think about adding to two columns for feedback scores – one for the student to self-evaluate and one for the teacher to make an evaluation as well. When students turn in assignments we need to get in the habit of having them express what they did well or describe how they worked through a difficulty. Invite them to self-evaluate. Get them in the habit of thinking about their own work.
Eliminate Rewards and Punishment
Lastly (for now), create a management plan that is based on prevention, rather than cure; and on problem-solving, rather than punishment. Boundaries and expectations need to be clear, and specific procedures for classroom operation need to be taught and rehearsed. As I have emphasized before, structure is our friend as choice theorists, not an enemy. Children need structure. They just need it to be redemptive and restorative. When misbehavior occurs in the classroom there is no better time to show children how self-evaluation and problem-solving work. Wean students off of being controlled and manipulated by others, to being controlled and governed by themselves.
We have covered some of these topics in past blogs. I will list some of them below for your convenience. Click on the links for quick access.
An important resource is Carleen Glasser’s primary grade workbook on the Quality World, which is an easy and fun way to teach young children about choice theory.
You can order the Quality World Workbook from the Glasser Inc. bookstore by clicking on the workbook above.
Anonymous would love to hear your ideas on how to share choice theory with children. Actually, I would like to hear your ideas, too.