You might not spend very much time thinking about your outfit or your drive to work, but you make decisions every step of the way. These small choices are mostly subconscious, but they reflect years of practice in choosing your own path.
While you have these years of experience, kids don’t. They have very few choices and don’t have the tools to approach these decisions in a logical way. The sooner students can learn decision-making skills, the better prepared they will be to face major challenges that extend well beyond taking the highway on a morning commute.
Let’s take a deep dive into decision-making in the classroom and how you can foster a group of smart thinkers who take action.
Why Should Students Learn Decision-Making?
You might not realize just how many decisions you make every day. Cornell University research shows that the average adult makes “about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day,” including an average of 226 decisions about food, reports Frank Graf at UNC-TV. These include macro decisions like what to eat and when, and small decisions like which bite to take first or whether the food needs to be cut.
There are several tactics that we use to make decisions, each depending on the choices facing us. A few include:
- Impulsiveness: making decisions quickly.
- Delegating: passing off the decision to someone else.
- Balancing: weighing the options available before choosing.
- Compliance: choosing the most pleasing or popular option available.
Suddenly, a concept that seems so basic becomes more complex. Added to that, no one uses just one form of decision-making. How you make decisions (and the types of choices you face) significantly affects every aspect of your life.
Students should understand that there is a significant difference between decision-making and problem solving, says former teacher Anna Schmitz. “Problem solving means being forced to make a decision because of conditions beyond your control. Decision making means choosing to make a decision because you wish for something to occur that is not occurring at the present time.”
For example, a child who is invited to two birthday parties has to solve the problem of which one to go to. That same child will use decision-making to pick out birthday gifts. Just because a child is good at solving problems doesn’t necessarily mean they are able to make good decisions when presented with multiple options.
Mental Health Benefits of Decision-Making Skills
In the same way that you might not realize how many decisions you make in a day, you also might not think about how the process affects your mental health.
Decision-making skills can help students cope with anxiety as they age. In an article for the National PTA blog, clinical neuropsychologist William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, founder of PrepMatters, cite research on how depression and anxiety rates have risen 37% in kids and teens since 2005. Many teenagers report not having a sense of control over their lives. Lack of control is one of the biggest possible stressors you can put on the brain, so when our kids have no say in what they can do and what paths they can take, their mental health takes a hit.
Giving students skills to make good decisions (and trusting those decisions as teachers or parents) empowers kids and builds their self-reliance.
Social work intern Kelly Scheibe-Chambers emphasizes how self-esteem and self-respect can positively impact a teen’s decision-making process. She suggests a few ways parents (and teachers) can build up their teens to benefit their mental health:
- Encourage teens to voice their opinions.
- Help teens set realistic goals.
- Show your teens that you believe that they can reach their goals.
- Be supportive when teens make mistakes.
When both parents and teachers practice good self-esteem building, students can grow into healthier adults.
Decision-Making is Lacking in Most School Curricula
Despite the proven value of having strong decision-making skills (and the demand for it in a professional workplace setting), many K-12 schools don’t have dedicated lessons or courses on decision-making.
“We spend too much time making kids memorize facts instead of giving them the skill that will help them throughout their lives,” writes Steven Johnson, author of “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most.” He wishes high school students would have a course where they study farsighted decision-making.
“No matter what you do in your life, no matter what career path you take, the ability to make the right choice when it really matters is a skill that will serve you well for the entirety of your adult life,” he says.
Some educators are developing coursework and lesson plans to teach decision-making skills in the classroom. Robin Gregory, a senior research scientist at Decision Research, has been working to develop a decision-making curriculum that can be applied in K-12 classes. The program trains teachers to present lessons to students with “a questioning and inquiry-based approach to making better choices.”
The curriculum addresses concepts such as “value-focused decision making, asking questions of facts to ensure their accuracy, and a willingness to construct new alternatives that can provide better solutions to problems.” Essentially, students learn to make sure they have all of the information and options available to them.
How Teachers Can Foster Decision-Making Skills
While you might not have access to decision-making curricula just yet, there are some ways you can give your students the ability to make decisions on their own. Here are a few tips for doing it right.
1. Let Your Students Lead the Classroom
Teaching students good decision-making can be as simple as letting them be in control of how they learn, writes elementary school teacher Katie Usher. Kids have very little control over their daily lives, from what they wear to where they go. Giving them time to make choices or be in control can give them a sense of their own power.
“One way to differentiate within the curriculum is to provide students with choices for completing an assignment,” Usher writes. “Giving students a choice allows them to take ownership of their learning as well as create a product that feels authentic to them.”
2. Discuss Various Scenarios and Solutions With Students
One of the best decision-making skills kids can have is to come up with multiple solutions and options to reach an end goal. Literacy interventionist, Kate Mills, says she begins the school year by “normalizing trouble” in the classroom. Students recognized that every challenge and even failure is a part of learning.
“I look for every chance to share problems and highlight how the students—not the teachers—worked through those problems,” she writes. “After a few weeks, most of the class understands that the teachers aren’t there to solve problems for the students, but to support them in solving the problems themselves.”
In this way, students learn to face challenges head-on without fear of messing up, because messing up just means they can try again a different way.
3. Simulate Real-World Scenarios in the Classroom
The team at All Pro Dad suggests using money as a tool to teach decision-making. Giving kids an allowance and seeing how they spend it is a great way to open discussions about decision-making. If a child spends it all immediately and then doesn’t have the money to buy something they want, they learn the consequences of their actions. Similarly, kids can learn how they can value some things over others to save their money for something big.
In the classroom, this can be recreated with “school dollars.” Students can earn money for good work and buy perks like choosing the games at recess.
4. Let Students Live with Their Choices
While it may not be easy, The Edvocate’s Dr. Matthew Lynch encourages parents and teachers to let kids suffer the consequences of their decisions. If students rush to a decision without thinking it through, they need to see what happens.
Allowing students to reverse their decision or letting them have both options won’t help them make decisions in the future. Consequences teach them to think through their ideas and understand that choices can have both positive and negative results.
5. Step Back from the Decision-Making Process as a Whole
One of the best things you can do as a parent or teacher is to take a step back from the decision-making process. Let your child or student weigh the options on their own mental scales and determine the best way to proceed.
“We want to raise kids to make good choices even when we’re not there. Even when there’s no reward or praise from a watching audience. Even when it’s hard,” writes parenting blogger Nina Garcia.
In the classroom, teachers can also encourage independent decision making by encouraging students to praise their peers when they see good decisions made or when they notice a friend or peer carefully considering their options. This also helps students see more examples of decision-making.
Additional Resources for Teaching Decision-Making in the Classroom
There are additional online resources and activities that you can introduce to your students to make them better decision makers.
Yanique Chambers, a licensed clinical social worker and blogger at Kiddie Matters, created a guide with learning resources for students of various ages, starting with young learners (around age six) and working up to teaching decision making for teens. She explains that there are three types of decisions:
- No decision. Students let their parents, teachers, or peers make choices because they worry that they will make the wrong decision.
- Snap decision. Students make decisions without thinking about their options or considering the consequences of their actions.
- Responsible decision. Students learn to carefully consider their options and gather information to ultimately make a choice on their own.
There is a time and place for snap decisions (like choosing a candy); however, students need to learn when to apply the decision-making process and how much time to spend reflecting on their choices.
For an additional resource, the South Australian Health network created a kid-focused page on making healthy decisions. It includes steps you can take to practice decision-making and examples of good and bad decision-making outcomes.
Rounding out our list is a collection of decision-making activities shared by Brianna Stauffer at Applied Educational Systems. These classroom games are specifically geared toward middle-school students. Many of her options are online games from other education institutions, so you can trust that the materials have been tested and verified by other educators.