How can I help students develop the essential skills needed in the decision-making process?

This is part 3 in “Mentor Me” questions about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). There are five components of SEL: self-awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills, social awareness, and self-management. Classrooms where teachers both overtly and organically teach these crucial skills give students the tools they need to be successful.

Students encounter an overwhelming amount of options throughout the day and their lack of experience can lead to either poor decisions or inaction.

As teachers, it is important for us to provide students with a variety of sensible choices as they continue to develop their abilities to analyze situations, ponder options, and consider multiple perspectives. In addition, students will likely benefit from conversations that focus on talking about the process of making decisions. These conversations are helpful because they serve as scaffolds in this complex process.

Providing opportunities for student choice in the classroom gives them chances to develop ownership of their learning and a sense of control over their lives. Oftentimes, it is easy for teachers to simply decide for students because creating the space for student decision making is, in and of itself, an unwieldy process—it takes longer, requires the teacher to analyze the many options to provide, and requires an intense knowledge of the students. Though quicker, when we make decisions for our students, we rob them of having to do the difficult thinking involved in decision making—analyzing options, taking time for forethought and reflection, collaborating with peers, seeking advice from others, talking through options with others, considering multiple perspectives. Not only that, we eliminate ownership, which should be at the heart of learning because it is our charge to help them accept responsibility for the decisions once they are made.

If you create a classroom environment with the room to make mistakes, students can try out options and see what works. More than anything, I try to give students opportunities to “rehearse” their real world skills in the safety of my classroom, amongst an empathetic audience of their peers. This means that I must make decisions in the open, transparent for them to see that not all decisions work out the way we plan. I just explained to my class that last year I had given a test and didn’t provide a word bank, and I told them that it really didn’t work out at all the way I wanted. They, of course, wanted to know what I did to fix the problem. I explained that I threw those questions out, to be fair. They were amazed that I’d admit that my test was flawed, but I could see that they understood ownership in a different way after the conversation.

We should not underestimate the teacher’s role in developing these decision making skills; we have an opportunity to shape the future because the decisions students make today will dictate the people they become and the paths that will be open for them. Teachers are able to gradually release the responsibility of the decision making from illusionary choices to more complex and nuanced decisions, just like the ones adults must make every day.