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Decision-Making: The Choices Children Make

By: Upper School Director Gail Clark

March 13, 2018

While visiting the Junior Kindergarten classroom last week, I observed the children making decisions about what to play with at their tables. Each child was engaged, working independently, side by side. I focused on one child who did not have enough magnetic shapes to complete his structure. I watched as he glanced at his neighbor’s magnetic pieces. I could tell he was pondering … Should I or shouldn’t I? But, I need those pieces. His hand slowly reached over to the other child’s shapes as he looked at her for a possible reaction, and then he quickly grabbed the pieces.

This impulsive and egocentric act was precipitated by what he saw as his only choice, which was totally age appropriate! He was lucky that his neighbor was okay with sharing, and she did not complain. I had a conversation with him afterwards about another possible choice he could have made to obtain the shapes. Such opportunities for learning experiences happen often. We navigate through our days making hundreds of decisions; however, in order for our children to learn to develop thoughtful and meaningful choices, decision-making skills need to be identified, practiced and learned. 

Decision-making skills are highly dependent on what Jean-Jacque Piaget called the Theory of Cognitive Development, which explains how a child constructs his own mental model of the world in order to reason. Understanding each stage of developmental reasoning allows us to coach our children on “how” to make the best decisions possible. We can only do this by helping them think through a specific process of making decisions based on their age/development appropriateness.

Ages 2 through 7
During the Preoperational Stage of Development: Ages 2 through 7, logical thinking is not yet present, so children cannot rationalize or understand more complex ideas. They are egocentric, meaning they focus on themselves and how immediate actions will impact them, rather than others, as the incident illustrates above with the child who was contemplating on how to get the magnetic blocks he needed. He was not able to take on the perspective of the other child and internalize how she might feel.

“Children of this age think that everyone sees, thinks, and feels just like they do; thus, their decisions are only based on thinking of satisfying their own desires” (Theories of Human Development, Lumencandela). Children ages 2 – 4 can handle two choices at most such as … Which one of these two books do you want to read? Do you want water or milk to drink? Do you want to put your pajamas on now or in 5 minutes? Do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue one? However, during the 5 – 7 year old “Mature” Preoperational Stage, children begin to identify alternative choices with adult assistance to help them further in their decision-making skills. Starting early, both at home and school, it is important to let children feel in control of such processes in their lives.

Ages 7 through 11
At the Piagetian Concrete Stage of Cognitive Development: Ages 7 through 11, additional elements of decision-making enter the picture. Although children are still egocentric, they begin to understand that not everyone shares their thoughts, beliefs or feelings. When decision-making, they can only reason logically about concrete events. “As a child gets older, their capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong takes shape as well as their ability to understand the consequences of their behavior” (Psychology Today). However, sometimes when they are learning to make appropriate choices, their decisions are made hastily and without thought to the process.

Once when I was teaching sixth grade, a student chose to make an unacceptable decision by using another student’s computer password to access his files and subsequently copied things that were not his own. The temptation to investigate someone else’s work overcame his sensibilities. Rumors about the incident began to fly amongst his classmates. When caught, his immediate reaction was to plead guilty, indicating he had known all along it was a poor choice, and he had violated school policy. When guiding him through our conversation about the incident, we discussed how the other child felt knowing someone trespassed into his personal file, and how he would feel if it were done to him. Could he have made better choices once he obtained someone’s password? Making the wrong choice can sometimes be the hardest but best lesson, if you help them think through their decision.

Ages 11 through 14
During the ages of 11 to 14, the onset of the Formal Operational Stage, children begin to use abstract logic to solve problems, see that there are other points of view, and have the capacity to plan for the future. Although older, children still need to discuss all sides of an important decision with parents, but now they need to rely on their own logical reasoning to solve problems. Recently, while meeting with Student Council members on their research for their annual community service project, they decided on helping Make A Wish Foundation. Next they discussed the possible fundraising options that Rossman students would enjoy. While creating a long list of options, the younger members of Student Council came up with fundraising ideas that would be too complicated, like an egg drop contest. 

The sixth graders brought them into check by explaining all details involved with the egg-dropping contest using their logic to understand all the ramifications, such as the cost, logistics, finding a high enough yet safe place to drop eggs, supplies to wrap them in, etc. Each child vividly demonstrated their developmental age of making decisions! It was gratifying to see the older students using abstract reasoning with the more concrete thinking younger children. Throughout the day, all our students are making decisions by identifying appropriate choices, often with mature guidance.

At Home
Direct teaching and modeling decision making at home will help children’s understanding of how to think through a decision. Parents can purposely walk their children through a legitimate decision-making process, so they can listen and chime in as they reason. If you are planning your weekend, talk through the choices, decide which is the best, and take all family members into account. Listen with interest to your child’s opinions. If a child is working through his/her own decision, such as whether to play baseball or even what do if someone is not being a good friend, help them understand the pros and cons of their actions, brainstorm solutions and options, and weigh the potential consequences. If a decision turns out unsatisfactory, reconsider with your child how to choose another viable option the next time. “Wisdom comes from making mistakes and learning from them” (Psychology Today). Good decision-making is the most important life skill to learn, but it’s the adults in the children’s lives who must make it an on going practice.

Decision-Making Purposeful Steps to Practice:

  • Teach children to stop and think! Taking time to think will save them from making poor decisions.
  • Why do I want to do this? Who will this affect? Oftentimes it is conflicting decisions, usually right or wrong.
  • Brainstorm options when age appropriate.
  • What are the consequences of my actions, both in the long-term and the short-term? Analyze the positive and negative outcomes, and then reflect on the choices.
  • Is this decision in my best interest? Often these concerns have to do with peer pressure. 

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Rossman School, nestled on a 20-acre campus in Creve Coeur, is an independent preparatory school for students in Junior Kindergarten (four years old) through Grade 6. The school’s mission is to provide a strong, well-balanced education in a nurturing school community committed to excellence. Dedicated to developing personal, nurturing relationships with each child, Rossman’s experienced educators provide a solid foundation in academics, athletics and arts while emphasizing strong character development and leadership skills.​ Request a free Rossman School brochure here

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