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  • by Blaine Helwig

Student Choice – Empowerment, but with Personal Responsibility

The choices made by students in their behavior have everything to do with their social and academic success in the classroom. Their decisions largely dictate the amount of time students are focused on learning. So, assuming there are established classroom rules consistently applied, student choice is a concept well worth discussing.

Choice affords empowerment and volition, but accompanied with personal responsibility

Volition of a student's choice is not always clearly understood. But, choice is the hallmark of human behavior. It clearly defines how we live and interact with each other. Choice is a word cloaked by both volition and control. All humans choose their behavior on how they act, interact or react.

One morning about 25 years ago, I was a fifth grade teacher preparing for my first lesson half-listening to the morning announcements rattling over the PA system. The assistant principal closed that morning with an unusual phrase of only seven words,

“Please choose to have a good day.”

At first, I dismissed this statement of 7 simple words as an utterance without substance where students at my elementary school would simply behave appropriately because they ‘chose’ to do so out of obligation to personal idealism. But, over the next couple weeks, I began to contemplate the meaning of the statement and realized the clout in those simple seven words. It was not ‘choosing’ to have a good day, but it was ‘choosing’ to make good decisions or face appropriate consequences and that defined a ‘good day.’ The emphasis on student ‘choice’ is one of absolute empowerment and freedom on control of one’s own actions and decisions. Whether an adult or a school-aged child, decisions are made throughout the day that define the varying levels of success regardless of the endeavor or human action.

For example, an adult can ‘choose’ to drive their automobile at a speed exceeding the posted speed limit, and that choice or action may or may not lead to a negative consequence. But, it is a choice they have made with the possibility of a potentially serious consequences. If there is a law enforcement official along that stretch of the highway, the driver may receive a traffic citation for vehicular speeding or more disastrous events could occur. Regardless, if pulled over by the police, the adult driver made decisions of their own volition that led to an external party placing action against them with varying consequences. There is no real reason for the police officer or the driver to be upset. The driver chose not to follow the rules, and it is the police officer’s job to levy a consequence. In the clearest kid friendly language, the driver ‘chose not to have a good day.’

It is no different for a child attending elementary school. They, and they alone, must choose to follow school or classroom rules, and ultimately they face the appropriate consequences when choosing not to do so. Every child or adult spends each day ‘choosing’ or ‘not choosing’ to follow a set of prescribed rules. And, the success of that day with regard to consequences is wholly dependent on those decisions – empowered decisions.

Of course, it must be noted, since there are prescribed rules in our everyday lives at home, school or the daily interaction in our world, fairness and consistently applied rules are paramount to maintaining a sense of equity. When inequitable administration of the rules occur, as expected, the system breaks down.

When those 7 words on student choice and volition were clear to me, I understood the importance of student empowerment in regard to my own decisions in my life. I choose. I choose my decisions and the possibility of consequences, and obviously, so does everyone else. There was no reason to get upset and emotional with students when they choose to break the rules. It was their decision to act that way or say those things. They chose. In a word, I was a thoughtful, relational and caring elementary ‘policeman’ that meted out an appropriate consequence and coached each child in a calm, reasoning demeanor so they could make better choices in the future. I focused on a short discussion on the specific behavior and the corrective action, made a plan to ensure student success, if necessary.

The power in these seven words is life altering, “Please choose to have a good day.” Teachers and principals should not become emotional when kids misbehave. It was not the educator's choice. It was the student's. The student knew the rules. Apply consequences consistently and fairly – counsel and guide when children make mistakes but continue offering personal empowerment and freedom of choice – with the responsibility that accompanies that privilege. Students choose the success of their day. Educators only assist by setting up equitable and predictable structure, and then empower and guide each student as needed to ensure his or her success.

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