Monday, May 9, 2011

Choices, Choices: Improving Behavior and Language Through The Power of Choice

It was one of the very first lessons I learned as a novice speech-language therapist: Don't ask a young child if he wants to do something if he really doesn't have a choice in the matter. It took me a while to learn this, mainly because by the time we are adults, we have all learned to couch our requests carefully inside of questions. We use these indirect requests to be polite and avoid seeming demanding. For example, I might carefully ask my husband, "Did you see that the trash is full?" when what I really want to say is "The trash is FULL again and I KNOW you saw it. Take it out!"

As adults, we use indirect requests all the time, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. They help us navigate relationships smoothly and effectively. Many of us, though, carry these indirect requests down to the toddler and preschool level. We say things like, "can you go inside?" or "do you want to clean up?" when what we really mean is "It's time to go inside," and "I need you to clean up." This is confusing to young children because their little minds are too immature to understand that we are telling them what to do when when we ask them a question. Children don't really begin to consistently understand indirect requests until they are 4-6 years old. And even then, when we ask a young child if they want to do something, there is a good likelihood that they will say, "no." Having given them an option, we are then stuck with their answer. 

So, the first thing I learned as a young graduate student was to tell children what I wanted them to do, clearly and without suggestion of an option (unless there really was an option to say no!). This was an important lesson. The second thing I learned, though, was even more powerful: When faced with a stubborn toddler or an independent preschooler, the best way to get them where you want to go is to give them a choice in getting there. I started embedding choices into my therapy sessions as a graduate student and never stopped:
  • "It's time to play! Do you want a puzzle or a book?" "
  • Now  it's time to go outside. Do you want to walk or hop?"
And as a parent, I use this little strategy all the time with my (very independent-minded) daughter.
  • "Do you want your diaper changed on the table or on the floor?"  
  • "Time for snack. Do you want milk or water?" 
  •  Let's go outside. Do you want to hold mama's hand or dada's? To walk or be carried?"

The power of choices is that you can almost always work a choice into anything you want a child to do. You end up getting your way, but you give your child a sense of power and control over her environment at the same time. And since young toddlers and preschoolers are developmentally programmed to strive for independence, giving them a way to assert their authority means fewer power struggles for everyone.

That's the good news. The even better news is that there's another huge benefit to choices.  Each and every time you give your child a choice, you are giving her an opportunity to communicate with you. Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious for wanting what they want, when they want it.  When you give your child a choice, it slooooows the activity down, and creates a pocket of time where you can help her learn to communicate.  The beautiful thing about using choices to enhance language is that it is a strategy that can be used across all levels of language development.  Take snack time as an example.  Pretend your daughter loves crackers and bananas.  You have two bowls: one full of bananas and one full of crackers.  You get her up in her high chair, give her one of each to ease her hunger, let her eat them, and then hold up both bowls for her to see and wait.  Always wait to see what she does on her own first. It gives her a chance to initiate communication and you a chance to build on what she does. (And she may surprise you with what she does!). So, wait. See what she does first.

  • If she reaches or points toward a bowl to indicate what she wants, say the name for what she wants, wait for just a moment, and give her some. Remember that a gesture is communication! Show her that you are hearing what she is "saying" by giving her what she wants while you add language for her. Over time, she'll start using the word along with the gesture, especially if you remember to wait just a bit before handing something to her.
  • If she's not yet imitating words, you might also think about using baby sign language.
  • If she uses a single word to request, use expansion by putting the word that she used into a two-word phrase for her. So if she says "nana" you say, "more banana!" And if she says "cracker" you say "eat cracker" as you it to her and watch her eat. 
  • If she's consistently using single words to request on her own, you might want to use a two-word phrase when you give her a choice.  You could, for example, say "mama's cracker...or Molly's cracker?" and "all done banana...or more banana?" If she only imitates one of the words, just model the two-word phrase again as you hand her what she wants. She'll get it eventually.
  • As she gets closer to three, you can work concepts such as color and size into your choices.  You might ask her if she wants the "blue bowl or the red bowl," the "big plate or the little plate" or "one cracker or two crackers." 
Although parents sometimes feel that they need to teach language inside of structured activities, you'll find that your daily activities are full of language and concepts that can be worked into choices with no preparation at all. Choices provide a rich language experience in which speech and language can be easily taught throughout the day. Combine this with the fact that choices can also be a powerful behavioral management strategy and you'll find that using choices with your child is a win-win situation for everyone involved. No choice required there.

Looking for more tips?


  1. Choice is good, too much choice is not. I like the idea of giving them the prompt and then they of course will choose one and repeat it back.

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  2. I am a big believer in this and I used it throughout my children's time at home even when they were teenagers. Some how it distracted them from being angry. When I'd call them in from play I would often say, "It is time to come in now so you can either use the front door or the back. I've heard parents ask if their kids will clean up or make their bed and then demand it if they didn't get the right answer. I agree with you, If there is no choice then don't give it.
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  3. Great post! We found this to be so true... even with the most difficult child. And now she's a beautiful young adult making wonderful choices :-)

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  4. I catch myself asking questions that only have one answer lately as well. I'm sure my 2.5 yo daughter finds it rather frustrating when she says no and I still make her do it lol. Definitely need to work on this skill. Very interesting post!

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  5. I agree. I think kids have a need through control and they can get that through responsibility and choices or they can get it through acting out and throwing tantrums. The first is perferable to me.

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  6. Stopping by from Giveaway Corner. Great post. My daughter is one of those independent thinkers that prefers being given a choice.

  7. Yep, totally agree! Great, clear article! Found you on No Time For Flashcards. Thanks for sharing your post!