This week’s Behavior Matters explains how offering students limited, but constructive, choices can improve their behavior and learning


Managing difficult behavior is inevitably about making choices. For you, it means choosing your management style, strategy and attitude. For the student, there should be the opportunity to make good choices regarding their own behavior. In the heat of the moment, or in the busy environment of the classroom, it is sometimes difficult to even recognize the choices that exist, let alone make good ones. Adults can get pulled into unnecessary arguments and confrontations, thus failing to give the challenging student satisfactory choices. Too much emphasis can be placed on ensuring that the student complies unquestioningly with the given instructions or the request to work. Focusing solely on compliance can set up an unhealthy ‘win/lose’ situation. As the adult role model, your aim should always be to create a ‘win/win’ situation. In other words, be prepared to compromise and offer realistic choices, but without losing sight of your goal. Your chosen strategy should offer the student a limited choice of behavioral and academic options, so as to steer him or her into making a good behavioral choice. The first stage of successful management is to be absolutely clear about your expectations and boundaries. To ensure that students understand what is expected of them, classroom or faculty rules and guidelines should also be on display in written and visual formats. These rules should be adhered to, regularly referred to and reinforced in your teaching. A typical ‘behavior plan’ for a teaching and learning environment will also include a series or hierarchy of rewards, consequences and/or sanctions. Unfortunately it can be all too tempting to move quickly from reward to sanction, with little room for negotiation. It is important to note at this point that you should not put yourself into a position of discussing with the student the pros and cons of your instruction, but it may be that the offer of a limited choice of options will be sufficient to avoid that risk. Some students will respond favorably to the offer of limited choice. The manner in which you phrase the possible choices is key to the likelihood of success. Clarity and inevitability are paramount. You are not allowing the student to make random choices about their behavior, but rather recognizing how they are feeling, being clear about what is expected of them, both academically and behaviorally, and giving them a limited option of choice before you begin to consider sanctions or consequences.

Practical Tips

As mentioned above, the manner in which you offer the limited choice is very important. For example:

‘John, get on with your work right now or you’ll be staying in to finish it at break!’

This is clearly a choice for the student, but one that will be seen as confrontational and may well lead to refusal to do either! An offer of limited choice in such a situation could be rephrased:

‘John, you need to get on with your work. If you need some help, that’s fine, you can get on with the parts you understand first and come back to this later.’

Using this style of dialogue − presented in a non-threatening or aggressive manner, considering body language as well as verbal − allows the student to develop his or her own thinking process when faced with a difficulty. You are making it absolutely clear that it is inevitable that the work should be completed; but, through the use of limited positive choice, you are helping the student to consider viable options. At this point, the main aim in using the strategy of limited choice is to remain positive. The options you suggest should avoid the negative approach of sanction or consequence. With your help and guidance, the student will consider the positive options and have the opportunity to make a good choice about their behavior. Your role is to avoid the student moving into and through the hierarchy of sanctions. For younger children, you may need to use a more practical approach to offering limited choice. Difficulties often arise in the primary classroom when a student has difficulty with their work, or even if they finish early. Confusion or boredom can lead to disruption. Give younger students limited choice in a practical format: a box of alternative activities, to be used when waiting for help or on completion of work, should be part of the approach to giving students positive alternatives. Regularly review and remind your students about the options, and reward those who manage to use these limited choices productively.

With your help and guidance, the use of limited choices will certainly give students the ability to resolve a potentially disruptive or difficult situation, while maintaining an ‘on task’ and calm work environment.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2008

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behavior Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.