Decision Making for Kids

You might have to jump in at first. But eventually, with the right modeling and practice, kids can develop the skills to make thoughtful decisions.

Emily Veno
September 13, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

The deadline to enroll in one of the colleges I had been accepted to was May 1. When April 30 rolled around and I hadn’t picked one, my parents concocted a “Come-to-Jesus” moment.

They took me to brunch at our favorite neighborhood spot and handed me a notepad and pen. Over cinnamon toast, we made a list of pros and cons, and had an open conversation about what my heart was telling me. Ultimately, I made a choice I was happy with.

Why had I struggled while, it seemed to me, many of my peers had easily chosen a college months prior? Maybe it was my perfectionism, which research shows can hinder decision-making skills. Neither college was perfect, making it less clear what the “right decision” would be. Or maybe I lacked practice—although I had some independence, I had never made a decision with such an impact on the rest of my life. And maybe more of my peers were also struggling with this transition than I thought.

Of course, I would soon make more big decisions: which courses to take, which jobs to apply to, which cities to live in. And daily adult life is all important small choices: After a long day, do you eat in or order out? Do you really need everything in your Amazon cart? Do you engage in that Facebook debate?

These examples highlight the importance of decision-making skills in any happy, successful life. You might have to jump in to support your child at first, like my parents did. But eventually, with enough modeling and practice, kids can develop the skills to make thoughtful decisions.

In this post, we’ll share ideas for building the autonomy, confidence, and critical thinking skills your kids need to be rockstar decision makers.

What does good decision making look like?

At Prisma, we’ve developed a list of the most important skills kids should master between grades 4 and 12. We use these “competencies” to plan our interdisciplinary units, project-based learning, and collaborative workshops. Traditional subjects like Science and English are included, but we also believe in developing social and emotional intelligence.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) developed a framework breaking down emotional intelligence into several discrete skills. One of these is responsible decision making.

CASEL defines responsible decision-making as “the ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.” To do this, kids need to be able to consider the possible consequences of their choices, both positive and negative. Check out this video from PBS Learning Media CASEL developed that breaks this skill down even more.

In our middle school, kids learn responsible decision making through daily social-emotional learning activities with their close-knit peer cohort. In our high school, teens complete a Life Skills course where they learn concrete decision-making skills like recognizing cognitive biases, resisting peer pressure, and making choices based on their values.

Autonomy-Supportive Parenting

The way to improve at making decisions is to practice. But many parents worry about the consequences of letting their children make choices. What if they make a bad decision? What if they fail?

Much has been made about “helicopter parents,” “lawnmower parents,” and how over-parenting can amplify mental health issues like anxiety. One of the ways this manifests is by stunting a child’s decision making skills.

When you support your child in making their own decisions instead of swooping in to do it for them, you help them develop true self-confidence. True self-confidence isn’t about thinking you’re the best at everything and can do no wrong (that’s more like the stifling perfectionism I mentioned earlier). True self-confidence is a belief in your own innate capability to handle the curveballs life throws your way.

Author and psychologist Emily Edlynn developed a theory called “autonomy-supportive parenting” as an alternative to the “helicopter” or “lawnmower” parenting of today. “It is a parenting approach that is nurturing a child's most fundamental human needs, which are autonomy, competence, and relatedness,” says Edlynn. “And what that means — because I know that sounds science-y — is raising a child who develops skills and self-awareness to really know who they are and have a sense of agency over how they live their life.”

At Prisma, we believe in what could be called “autonomy-supportive education.” We think kids will be better decision makers if they have a strong sense of their interests, values, and strengths. This is why our curriculum gives kids tons of choice over what they learn, encourages struggle, and builds collaborative problem solving skills.

Kids who are used to always being told exactly what to do don’t grow up to be the entrepreneurial self-starters our world needs. The CASEL framework agrees that “demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness” is a key part of decision-making skills.

Plus, if you try to make your child’s decisions for them, you risk causing “the Romeo and Juliet effect”: making them want to do the opposite of what you say!

Of course, kids aren’t ready to make all decisions by themselves. Read on for guidelines on how to manage this process as they grow.


Choice Architecture

So you want your kid to practice making choices. But what about the paradox of choice: an idea that the more options we encounter, the harder it is to make a decision?

At Prisma, we find that instead of giving a complete blank slate, learners do best with 3-6 possible project options. Then, if they want to go outside of those options, they can!

This strategy is called choice architecture: curating how choices are presented in a way that leads to an effective decision making process. Eric Johnson, author of The Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters, gives the following advice to parents:

“New York City presents eighth graders with more than 700 different high schools in a large book and asks them to rank their top 12. It’s easy for families to feel lost and kids to end up in a school that’s a bad match. Experiments that cut the options to 30—eliminating schools that are too far away, for example—helped students make better choices.
My niece’s parents wanted to help her choose an extracurricular. They structured the choices into categories like sports, after-school clubs, and in-school challenges. She could make a choice within each category or decide which category was more important, and that made the process easier.”

-CharacterLab article

This choice architecture strategy (curating a list of options by category) works well for older children.

Young children can handle fewer options. When asking them to make a decision, try presenting only two choices (“Do you want to wear the blue bathing suit or the green one?”) or using a visual aid (“Can you point at the picture of which type of cake you’d like for your birthday?”).

The Decision Making Process

Now that you are ready to give your child autonomy and support with intentional choice architecture, you can get them comfortable with the decision making process. Of course, every decision is different. In general, any effective decision should involve these steps:

  1. Gather information. Instead of deciding based on instinct, encourage your child to use critical thinking skills to make informed decisions. Explore multiple perspectives, utilize media literacy, and be aware of potential biases.
  2. Apply specific decision making strategies. We like this list from MindTools, but a simple pros and cons list also works.
  3. Practice reflection & self awareness. Data-driven decision making is one thing, but truly knowing yourself is the key to making decisions you’ll be happy with. Reflection helps your child not only know themselves better, but will also enable them to learn from decisions that don’t turn out the way they hoped.

Strategies for Raising Good Decision Makers

  1. Model good decision-making skills! There’s research showing that watching others make decisions helps people apply those strategies themselves. When you make a decision, narrate it for your child (or let them participate)! “Your father and I are deciding whether to buy a new car, so we’re comparing the costs of repairs to our old one with current prices.”
  2. Don’t be a perfectionist. Sometimes, being okay with the “good enough” choice relieves pressure and encourages action rather than sitting in indecision. Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, calls this being a “satisficer.”
  3. Practice with low stakes decisions. Board games can be fun, low-pressure avenues for flexing decision-making muscles. Or, try giving kids ownership of small choices, like deciding where the family orders Friday night takeout.
  4. Don’t be too risk averse. Of course, kids should be steered away from dangerous choices. But try not to discourage a choice just because you don’t think it will work out—who knows, maybe they’ll love that summer camp you suspect isn’t their speed, or learn a valuable lesson from putting off their project to the night before it’s due.
  5. Beware of cognitive overload. Effective decision making requires critical thinking and a well-regulated emotional state. The idea of “decision fatigue” poses that the brain loses ability to make decisions over the course of a demanding day, so maybe don’t force the decision-making practice after a full day of school, homework, and chores.

Nobody, not even adults, makes the right decision all the time. But when fostering decision-making skills in young people, what’s important is giving them the autonomy to try, the space to reflect, and the safety to know you’ll be there for them—if and when they get it wrong.

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