The Magical Power of Choice

child making choice with parents

As winter sets in and the days get shorter, it seems like there isn’t enough time to get everything done. Morning routines are filled with rushed daily tasks such as brushing teeth, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. Evenings can feel just as hectic as dinners are prepared and served, homework is done, and bath time rolls around.

It’s easy for kids to feel overwhelmed with the never-ending to-do lists and distracted by more enjoyable alternatives such as playing with their siblings, looking at phones, and watching TV. Let’s face it—adults struggle with this too! So how can you get your child started on their routines without problem behaviors or complaining, and maybe even with a pep in their step? The answer: giving them choices!

In ABA, we define “choosing” as behaving one way versus another to get the desired outcome. The choice is a crucial part of our daily lives and it’s everywhere we look.

When we woke up this morning, we chose whether to immediately get out of bed or to stay for 15 minutes and go through our favorite phone app. We chose whether to wear something comfortable or something fashionable. We chose how much creamer and sugar to put in our coffees. And when we saw the time, we decided whether to pick up the pace and get to work on time or savor our breakfast and be a few minutes late. As adults, we enjoy the freedom that comes with these endless choices. But do our kids?

Choice is an important topic because children already experience a limited amount of choices when compared to adults. When disability or language delays are involved, the number of choices is significantly reduced for children. For example, a speaking 5-year-old can tell their parents that they want to wear their favorite green shirt tomorrow. However, a 5-year -old with the same desire for autonomy might struggle to make their choice known.

It might seem trivial to make choices about what we wear, however, how distracted were you at work when you wore an uncomfortable or unflattering sweater? More importantly, what happens when we crave food and can’t tell others that we want to eat that?

Missed opportunities to make choices and communicate them build up over time and reduce overall quality of life. When we see this, it’s common to see more challenging behaviors and emotional outbursts. Research has demonstrated that increasing daily opportunities to make choices decreases severe behaviors. So how can we provide choices for our children that will impact their lives?

Below we’ve provided some example choices you can give to your child during these common problem tasks. You can start with one or two choices for each area and see which kinds of choices your child responds to best! Over time, your child will learn how to problem-solve and advocate for themselves.  

  • Homework Choices: 
    • Do you want to do 3 questions and then a 3-minute break or do you want to do 5 questions and a 5-minute break?
    • Do you want to do the math first or spelling?
    • Do you want to do your homework at the table or on the floor?
    • Do you want mom to help or dad?


  • Chores and Daily Living Tasks:
    • We need to wash the dishes and do the laundry. Which one should I do and which one should you do?
    • After vacuuming, do you want to watch TV or go for walk?
    • Do you want to take a bath now or do you want to wait until this episode ends?


  • Communication Delays: Keep language short and sweet and show the child the options
    • Show two items and say “Pick one.” If your child isn’t reaching for preferred items yet, provide a favorite item and a boring item. After saying “Pick one” you can place your child’s hand on the preferred item and give it to them. Over time, they will learn to show you their choice. 
    • Provide pictures of activities to help your child choose things that are not physically present. For example, you can show a picture of the street and a picture of the bathtub to show them the available choices of going for a walk or taking a bath.

For more ways to incorporate language into your child’s daily routines, check out more of our blogs here and here!

Written by Adriana De la Torre, M.S., BCBA

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