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Back to School With Choice Boards: Balancing Expectations And Autonomy

The alarm clocks are set and backpacks are loaded. It’s that time of year again: back to school season. For many, it is a time of establishing predictability and routine after several weeks of leisure or a less structured summer break.

This time of year signals an increase in expectations and responsibility for kids of all ages, and a reduction of freedom or at least “free time”. From homework to school drills, procedures to picture days, the structure of school might be a welcome rhythm that your family naturally falls into -- or a source of anxiety and tension, especially for students who struggle with executive function skills.

How can you promote autonomy and independence while still establishing clear boundaries, expectations, and follow through?

Dr. Ross Greene, clinical psychologist and author of The Explosive Child and other parenting books, argues, “If your child could do well, he would do well…If your child had the skills to exhibit adaptive behavior, he wouldn’t be exhibiting challenging behavior.” This “kids do well when they can” belief underscores the delicate balance between providing structure and clear boundaries and opportunities to exercise choice and free will.

While opportunities to exercise independence tend to increase as students mature and advance in grade level, students of all ages benefit from getting to voice preferences, develop agency, and in some cases, live with the consequences (positive or negative) of their choices.

Be direct and honest about what’s not in your child’s locus of control, such as school schedules, start and end times, rules, policies, and homework expectations. Once non-negotiables are listed, brainstorm all of the other daily and long-term decisions that are available, and provide appropriate choices when possible.

For elementary students, such choices might include input on snacks, lunches, wardrobe choices, morning/evening routines, and after school schedules. First-then visual tools can assist students and kids who benefit from structured choices. This language frame also supports time management and provides motivation and encouragement to meet short-term goals and expectations. (Ex: First, let’s work on math homework for 15 minutes, then you can take a brain break, play on your tablet, go outside, etc. for 15 minutes.)

Student-specific choice boards are another way to provide structured choice. To ensure our son was working on his growth areas outside of regular occupational and speech therapy sessions, we developed a menu of options for him to choose from and rotate through to promote variety and establish consistency.

Balancing non-preferred and preferred tasks and chunking tasks into steps or smaller time frames can support follow through, engagement, and stamina. And giving students control over the order of tasks promotes task completion and a sense of agency. While completing certain tasks may be non-negotiable, the when, where, and how a task gets done are decisions learners of all ages can make.

Need help jumpstarting your student’s executive function skills or developing routines and processes that work for your learner? Reach out to the Hopkins team today. From education assessments, to 1:1 tutoring, we can help your student develop confidence and independence that lasts well beyond this back to school season.


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