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The Power of Student Choice

By M.Ed. Claudia Saucy


Recent brain research shows that the part of the brain that governs decision-making, doesn’t finish developing completely until the age of 25.  

The very last part of the brain to be pruned and shaped to its adult dimensions is the prefrontal cortex, home of the so-called executive functions — planning, setting priorities, organizing thoughts, suppressing impulses, weighing the consequences of one's actions. In other words, the   final part of the brain to grow up is the part capable of deciding, I'll finish my homework and take   out the garbage, and then I'll IM my friends about seeing a movie. (Wallis, 2008)

Due to this research, there is much debate over how much conscious control students have over their actions. Some believe it is the perfect explanation that justifies their teenager’s unusual behavior; others think it is a good reason to focus in on them more. Making up for what their brain still lacks, adults can provide structure, help adolescents organize their time, and especially guide them to make conscious choices.

Any school that aims at forming responsible adults, who, in the future, can make positive changes in the world, is faced with the task of teaching students decision-making skills. The best way to get students used to making decisions is by maximizing their experiences with choice and negotiation, as well as teaching them techniques to pause, reflect and evaluate themselves regularly.

Although it is not realistic to think that students at a young age can make all their decisions by themselves, a healthy educational environment will provide student choice within reasonable limits from the very beginning and on a daily basis.


Maybe students cannot choose the curriculum, but they can be given the choice of how they want to go about studying a particular unit, or how they wish to present the information they have learned. Given a number of books to read, students might choose the order in which they want to read them, if they want to read them alone, with a partner or in a small group.

At home, children can be given choices, too. Start with simple ones that don’t have grave consequences, and gradually increment the degree of responsibility. Most and foremost, help them reflect on their choices, evaluate the consequences, and develop better criteria for making decisions next time.

Once children get used to the idea that they have choices and realize how they are making decisions on their own all the time, this gives them a sense of control. Feeling empowered lessens feelings of boredom, helplessness and even depression. It gives them greater self-esteem and leads them towards more responsible behavior.

Ultimately, when something is not right, they won’t blame others. Instead, by exercising their decision-making powers they will actively get down to the business of making positive changes.


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