How to Use Choices and Preferences to Improve Cooperation
Engaging Cooperation through Choice and Preference
We’re going to begin this article by stating the obvious: “People perform better – and, in general, behave better – when they feel that they have some control over their circumstances and actions.” This includes children with special needs, especially if their opportunities to exert this type of influence have been limited in the past. Several studies have supported this common sense perspective, showing that incorporating choice and preference into required activities (e.g., academics, chores) dramatically improves children’s participation and reduce problems with behavior. This article will describe how to use choices and preferences to improve children’s cooperation and behavior.
Being allowed the opportunity to make choices should be viewed as a basic right for all people. Unfortunately, children with special needs – especially those with severe disabilities -have often been viewed as incapable of making appropriate choices. Highly structured special education programs and home activity practices also have a tendency to preempt opportunities for choices, about even the simplest decisions. The opportunity to make choices is important because it allows a child to control his or her surroundings. It allows children to be with people they enjoy, engage in activities they like, and take greater pleasure from their lives. In addition, we are learning that the act of choice making itself may be rewarding, regardless of the outcome of the selection. Providing opportunities for choice addresses problem behavior by providing a child a sense of ‘empowerment’ through the act of choosing.
There are a variety of ways to offer choices. Choices can include what a child does or obtains through his behavior, when he does certain things, with whom he interacts, and how he accomplishes activities. Choices can be between two options or among a variety of options. Choices can simply require pointing or a head nod, or demand more elaborate communicative forms. During a typical day, children may be given choices regarding which clothes to wear, foods to eat, toys to use, or things to do. When asking children to do things they may not enjoy such as brushing their teeth or doing their homework, choices can engage their cooperation. Here is a summary of some of the ways in which choices can be offered:
Provide a choice of…
- activities or tasks to complete
- the order in which tasks are completed
- materials to use for the activity
- where to complete activity or task
- when to complete activity or task
- with whom to complete task
Everyone has particular preferences and tends to participate more fully in activities when those preferences are honored. Children may be more cooperative when items or conditions they like are embedded in daily activities. For example, children may willingly complete challenging routines when they are allowed to use preferred products (e.g., favorite toothpaste, special basket for toys) or listen to music or converse while engaged. They may tolerate having to wait or to entertain themselves better if they have their favorite toy or book. Long or difficult tasks may be more tolerable if interspersed with “mini fun breaks” in which they are allowed to stretch or monitor their progress with a sibling or parent. The key to using preferences to engage children and improve behavior is individualizing the modification to assure it reflects a child’s specific likes or interests.