Are You Making This Mistake When Giving Controlled "Choices?"

student making a choice

We've likely all heard of the term "instructional choice" or "controlled choice" when it comes to providing instruction. Providing opportunities for students to make choices when they are calm is a terrific way to head off any unwanted behavior and increase the chances that students stay engaged and on-task. 

But, this strategy can quickly and easily turn sour when used at the wrong time and in the wrong way. 

You're in the heat of the moment, your student isn't following instructions, and your frustrations begin to emerge. Before you can think of how to de-escalate the situation, you blurt out, "Fine. You can do it now or during your recess." Your student flashes you a look of contempt and gets started or maybe the student escalates to the point of no return. 

There is a fine line between appropriate limit setting and reminding students of a negative consequence or potential punishment. The latter is usually based on emotion and reaction, rather than a planned response to behavior. 

Giving two options, one being a consequence meant to act as a punisher, is not a choice and is the wrong way to use what should be a proactive, positive-based strategy. 

"But how do I remind the student of the consequences?"

Great question! Teaching of expectations and outcomes of both the appropriate and inappropriate behavior should be done ahead of time when both you AND the student are calm. Ideally this would be done during a lesson where explicit instruction, modeling, rehearsal and feedback was involved. 

So how to we go about using the instructional or controlled choice strategy in a proactive, trauma-informed way that works to prevent the disruptive behavior from even occurring?

1. Identify 2-3 options you will make available to the student that you are okay with

  • How to do something ("Would you rather skip or run today in P.E.?")
  • When to do something ("Would you rather write your paragraph now or after reading?")
  • Where to do something ("Do you want to sit on the floor or in a chair?")
  • What order to do it in ("Do you want to start with math problem #4 or #8?")
  • With whom to do it with ("Would you rather work with Ms. Johnson or Timmy?")
  • What color to use ("Do you prefer the green marker or the red pen?")

2. Present these options to the student

3. Wait for the student to independently make a choice

4. Provide positive feedback for appropriate choice making

5. Provide the student with their chosen item or activity

Remember, choices should be given proactively as part of the initial demand or instruction, not as an emotional response or consequence to problem behavior.