To Engage Learners, Give Them Choices

Would you like your children to develop decision-making skills and invest more energy in learning? Give them choices!

In the previous article, we described routines as one of the ingredients for developing executive functions and self-regulation. In this article, we add choices to the mix. If we give children choices, they are more likely to follow through with their chores, school activities, and homework.

Children benefit from choices in all areas because feeling autonomous enhances intrinsic motivation regardless of the task. But for now, we'll focus on learning and doing homework

In this article:

What Research Tells Us

An interesting fact about choices and test scores: in one study (1), students who were given a choice between two homework assignments scored higher on the unit tests.

First, let's see what happens to students and their learning when they have the opportunity to choose some aspects of their tasks:

- Students who are allowed to make choices invest more energy in learning.

- They feel a certain responsibility to participate.

- Choice allows students to be accountable for their actions; they make a choice, so they have to follow through.

- Most students say that learning is more fun and meaningful, and they feel more proud of their work.

- Choices give them (students) ownership of learning.

- Students invest more time, energy and effort in the process because it is "uncool to fail at something you have chosen."

- Choice helps students to be more actively engaged.

- Students usually work harder and give a better effort.

- Students commit to learning and use higher-level thinking.

These are just a few statements from teachers who participated in a study (2) on choice. From these answers, it's evident many teachers believe that regular choices benefit motivation and learning. 

How does this work in practice, and what can parents learn from this study?

Tips for Parents

There are several types of choices. Depending on your family situation, you could try some of these. 

Types of choices

  • Topic.

At school, teachers can offer students different topics for research papers, in-class projects and presentations. As a parent, you can't really tell your child to choose what they want to learn (unless you're homeschooling). Even teachers have guidelines, called curriculum, to follow. But you can always offer this choice if the kid needs extra work at home or wants to learn more about something they did at school. If they like biology, you can suggest learning more about dart frogs. Maybe even get an aquarium and encourage the child to observe and make notes. If they are good with numbers, propose finding out more about Pythagoras and his theorem.

  • Reading materials. 

Parents can start offering this choice even before children start school. Ask your kid to choose the book they want to listen to or read before bedtime. Schoolchildren can use encyclopaedias, dictionaries, biographies, and all other reading materials to discover more about the topic. Encourage them to use printed materials and slowly introduce digital media and reading platforms.

  • Assessment.

As a parent, you probably won't grade your child. However, you can offer this choice if they have to learn something at home and you want to ensure they actually learn it. Many parents use questions listed in the book to check how much the child knows. However, there are other options: encourage your child to decide whether they want to present what they've learned by writing and solving test questions, writing reports, or creating posters. 

  • Activities.

Read, make a K-W-L chart, underline the keywords, answer the questions, make your own questions, translate a text, highlight what's important, code a text… These are just a few activities you can suggest to your child when they have something to learn at home. For example, your first-grader has to practise the letter B? Colour in, connect the dots, paint it with watercolours, or write it with chalk on a blackboard could be several choices to offer them.

  • Social arrangement.

Talk to your child to choose between studying alone and inviting a classmate to learn a new lesson, answer the questions from the lesson, or solve equations together. 

  • Procedural.

These choices refer to time (Would you like to do your homework before or after lunch?) and order (would you like to do your Math or English homework first?) of doing tasks.

Criteria for choices

Of course, age is one vital element to be considered when giving children choices. Older children need more choices because they are more mature and have better decision-making skills. They also have more established interests and need more opportunities to follow them. 

On the other hand, it is never too early to start teaching decision-making and self-regulation skills that spontaneously emerge from choice-making. According to the teachers in this study, even 5-year-olds benefit from the frequent presentation of choice.

At home, you can start even earlier. Even the simplest choices, such as "Would you like to wear this red or this blue t-shirt today?" bring your child a step closer to independent decision-making.

In the beginning, don't fall into the trap of "what/when/how would you like to…" questions. This can be overwhelming and confusing for kids. Instead, give only choices you can agree to and make it simple:

  • What would you like to eat? vs Would you like a peanut butter sandwich or a cheese sandwich?
  • When would you like to do your homework? vs Would you like to do your homework before or after snack?
  • How would you like to learn this lesson? vs Would you like to answer these questions or make a poster?

As children get older, their decision-making skills improve, and they need less directing. Keep in mind – these skills don't develop overnight. It takes time and practice. 

Key Takeaways

- There are several types of choices - topic, materials, assessment, activities, social arrangement, and procedural.

- Students who are allowed to make choices invest more energy in learning.

- It is never too early to start teaching decision-making and self-regulation skills.


(1) Patall, e., Cooper, H. & Wynn, S. (2010). The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102 (4), 896–915 

(2) Flowerday, E. & Schraw, G. (2000). Teacher Beliefs About Instructional Choice: A Phenomenological Study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92 (4), 634-645.