How to Support Good Decision-Making in Students

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction
Young boy makes choices which are written on a street sign he’s looking at.

A goal in education – and in special education and trauma and resilience graduate programs – is creating citizens who positively contribute to the world around them; in order to do so, good decision-making is critical to their success. As we prepare students at young ages for the independence we aspire to see them achieve in later years, experience can be the best teacher.

Decision-making is a skill that can in fact be nurtured and taught in the classroom, particularly within our work related to social-emotional learning (SEL), through intentional planning of classroom routines and environments that reinforce a student’s agency in their day and incorporating times for direct instruction of decision-making skills.

Explicit Instruction

Over the past two years, SEL has received worthy recognition as a foundational component to education. While some may see it as teaching how to understand feelings and interact with peers, it is also a straightforward venue for the explicit teaching of work habits like decision-making.

Suppose your SEL curriculum in place does not already have lessons on decision-making. In that case, you can D.I.Y. the lesson by creating age-appropriate scenarios for students to have to make decisions between: Should I leave campus with my friend even though it’s against the rules or tell her no and go to study hall? Should I finish my online homework or play the game I like instead?

With any scenario, walk students through a concrete decision-making process with simple language; practice strategies like weighing the pros and cons, evaluating the consequences of each decision, identifying which would benefit self and others, or determining the level of safety of each decision. Once you have done explicit teaching around the skill, you can build direct instruction for decision-making regularly with a weekly “What would you do?” or “Weigh the consequences” type activity.

Positive Reinforcement

It is human instinct to enjoy and respond to positive reinforcement, whether it is a tangible sticker or just the presence and attention of a caring person in the child’s life. Pairing good decision-making with positive feedback from an early age builds an affinity for making good choices. Does your school have a school-wide reward system or celebration venue? Taking the opportunity to recognize good decision-making publicly can benefit the child being celebrated and model the desired behavior for others.

When working with a student exhibiting behavioral challenges, one of the most important things you can do is create valued and frequent reinforcement for any desirable behavior to begin reshaping the decisions a child makes in the school setting. With time, this can transfer outside of the school setting.

Natural Consequences

While positive reinforcement builds the habits of making good decisions, natural consequences also teach important lessons to dissuade students from making poor decisions. It is important that students feel the impact positively or negatively to associate their decision with the resulting outcome whatever the consequence of the decision.

When it comes to negative consequences, at home, parents can utilize natural consequences like not having time for a preferred activity because they argued for so long about the responsibility such as doing their homework. In school, natural consequences can also exist to provide an experience of what happens when you don’t use your good decision-making skills.

For example, if you are allowed to choose your group for a group project but decide to team with your friends who don’t have the same work ethic, you will either naturally end up doing more work or end up with a poor grade. At the elementary level, deciding to lie about your involvement in a problem instead of accepting responsibility may result in privileges being revoked due to a lack of trust.

It is essential to make sure you, as the adult, are using judgment for when a child “catches a break” or gets adult support to avoid a consequence. While it is our inherent nature to help a student by providing an alternative or suggestion, sometimes holding back that help is helping the most.

Alternatively, taking natural consequences to the extreme can also have unwarranted effects on the child, so being mindful of context and continuing to find opportunities for positive reinforcement are important elements to natural consequences having a beneficial impact.

Restorative Discipline

There will, ultimately, be times in your career when students make such a poor decision that responsive action from you or the administration is necessary. While consequences may be assigned to a student for breaking a school rule or doing something egregious to another student, we mustn’t overlook the opportunity to teach, even in these moments.

One of the definitions of the word “discipline” is in fact: “to teach or train.” We must hold ourselves accountable for using discipline as a means to improve student decision-making through the elements of response we provide. While there may be consequences like a lunch detention or time away from class, important restorative experiences should also be included. Is there a relationship that needs to be repaired due to the student’s choice? Build in the opportunity for the child to apologize and empathize with the person who was negatively affected by their decision. Is there a rule that was broken, whether explicit or more implied in society? Take the time to read, analyze, and write about what they learned if the student is independent enough.

Referring back to an SEL curriculum to re-teach or provide video and text examples can also be a meaningful restorative discipline. Students must take additional school time to work on interpersonal or intrapersonal skills that led to a poor decision. It is important to remember that mistakes, or poor decisions, can be life’s greatest lessons, so we should not ever make a student feel like there is a mistake so big we won’t be there to help them through it and learn from it.

Want to make an impact with social-emotional learning? From special education to trauma and resilience, we have a plethora of graduate programs to explore!

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