Margaret Collins explores ways in which we can help children to think about their responses and their reactions

Making choices is an important part of everyday living. From the moment we become conscious human beings we choose how to respond and with whom to interact. The need to make our own decisions increases as we grow and mature. Our self-awareness, self-esteem, locus of control (that is, the ability to be in charge of our feelings) all impact upon these choices and the ways in which they are made.

Research links children’s mental and physical health to the development of emotional literacy (Goleman 1995, Grant 1992, Rudd 1998). Peter Sharp (2001) suggests four reasons why emotional literacy must be promoted in both children and adults. To:

  • recognise our emotions in order to be able to label and define them
  • understand our emotions in order to become effective learners
  • handle and manage our emotions in order to be able to develop and sustain positive relationships
  • appropriately express emotions in order to develop as rounded people who are able to help ourselves and, in turn, those around us.

We need to develop internal control alongside the ability to use both brain (what we know is the right thing to do) and feelings (what we would like to do) to make a choice, recognising and preventing impulsive responses when they are not helpful.

We must develop our ability to think ahead. When we identify consequences of actions we stand a good chance of making a good choice and achieving the best possible outcome.

We must try to:

  • help young children to develop internal control in order to make good choices and to develop and sustain positive behaviour
  • help them to understand the consequences of their behaviours and how their feelings and thoughts impact upon what they do
  • help them to become aware of the differences between thinking, feeling and behaving and the ways in which they can distinguish between responses based on thoughts or feelings and the majority of responses which are based on both
  • help them to distinguish between impulsive responses and well thought-out responses which allow for good and positive outcomes.

Koeries, Marris and Rae (2005) state:

‘Building emotional literacy and providing children with daily opportunities to develop their skills in this area will also simultaneously help to promote good mental health and nurture children’s ability to be resilient and to cope with the challenges that life may bring them’.

Using stories

With the youngest children, this can most easily be done through story. Stories are a vital resource; they provide a safe medium in which we can explore different kinds of behaviour and look at the consequences of actions. Stories provide situations where children can both identify and reflect upon good and negative choices and the outcomes that will result from both.

After reading a story right through go back to a place where a choice had to be made and ask the children what they think the character should do. As the story progresses, look at the options – what choice did the character feel inside them was the one they wanted to make; which, in their head, did they know was the right one. Talk to the children about what could have happened if one or other choice is made – actions have outcomes and this can be gently pointed out in story.
Below, we see some examples contained within traditional children’s stories.

Of course, you will have many, many children’s story books in your library and you know the value of reading or telling stories to children. Make sure you don’t spoil the story but do use it as a resource to help children to understand the importance of making the right decision. You will then want to read the story right through and enjoy it again for its own sake.


  • Sharp, P (2001) Nurturing Emotional Literacy: A Practical Guide for Teachers, Parents and those in the Caring Professions, London, David Fulton Publishers.
  • Koeries, J, Marris, B, and Rae, T (2005) Problem Postcards, Social Emotional and Behavioural Skills Training for Disaffected and Difficult Children Aged 7 to 11, Bristol, Lucky Duck Publishing.

Discussing choices in traditional children’s stories

Red Riding Hood

Mother told her to be careful, not to talk to strangers. She knows, in her heart that she should not talk to the wolf but has either forgotten this good advice or is persuaded by the wolf that he is a kindly person. When she sees him in the wood she has two choices. Her head tells her that she should ignore him and go swiftly to her grandmother’s house. But she stops to talk to him.
Ask the children why they think she does this. Is it her head telling her to stop and talk – or is it her feelings – was she thinking and remembering what her mother had said? What kind of ending would this story have had if Red Riding Hood had ignored the wolf.

The three little pigs

These pigs have a different choice to make. Did the one who chose to make a straw house really use his brain to make that choice? What happened to him because he made the wrong choice?
Why did the third one choose to make a house of brick? Why didn’t they all make a house of brick? What would have happened then?

The three bears

Goldilocks comes to the bears’ house. She has a choice to make. She goes inside. Did she make that choice with her head, her feelings or both? What would have happened if she had waited outside for the bears to come back from their walk? Having made the wrong choice, not all is lost – until she sits in the chair and breaks it. What could she have done then? Perhaps waited until the bears came back and offered to try to get it mended. If she had made that choice, would it have been made with her head or her feelings – or both?

She could have stopped at any part of her exploration of the house but instead it all keeps going wrong. When the bears came back there was yet another choice to make – perhaps she could have had the courage to explain, apologise and try to make amends.


She made a choice at the prince’s ball. When the clock bells started to ring she chose to run. How would the story have ended if she had stayed and talked to the prince, explaining where she came from and why her clothes had turned to rags and how she had come to be at the ball? Do the children think that would have been a good choice?

First Choices (2006) A Lucky Duck publication by Margaret Collins has many stories designed to help children to explore the different choices made by the characters in the stories. Two endings are provided for each story and children are encouraged to discuss these and to undertake other relevant activities before choosing the ending they like best or even thinking up their own. These moral stories will give you another platform on which to discuss making choices using your head or your feelings or both!