A Unique Child

How to Help Young Children With SEN Make Choices

Presenting expectations clearly gives every child the opportunity to make a choice, says Adele Devine…

A scarf catches your eye. It’s love at first sight. You are justifying the purchase in your mind as you check the price. Now you notice it’s available in multiple colours – all of which are lovely. Do you…

a) stick to your original choice and take your new scarf to the cashier;

b) buy the scarf in every available colour to go with different outfits; or

c) try each one in front of the mirror, hum and ha because you like them all, and finally leave the shop empty handed?

Whether it’s what to wear, what to eat or what to watch on TV, the simple act of making choices can be difficult for all of us. Added options and thinking time sometimes make choosing even harder. Some adults simplify the equation by removing choice: they have a minimal wardrobe, and reorder the same food online each week. They make a lifestyle decision not to waste time and energy on choosing. Why? Are they being lazy in opting not to choose, or are they being more efficient?

There are a number of famous adults who eliminated choice:

● Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, had a signature look of jeans and black turtle necks. He had over a hundred!

● Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, has over 20 grey t-shirts.

● Albert Einstein was famous for wearing the same grey suits and no socks.

● Barak Obama wears only navy or black suits to save having to think about what to wear.

Transfer this issue to our typical early years setting. We put out a host of exciting activities in different areas and give the children ‘choice time’. Most children take to this incredibly well. They understand the unspoken rule that they must make multiple choices. They travel from the sand tray to the dress up corner without issue. They choose and they transition.

But think of the child who chooses the cars every day and won’t move on. He or she might not play with the toys in a typical way either. Alarm bells may begin to ring. You wonder what the future will hold for that child. Well stop a second and spare a thought for Einstein, Jobs, Obama and Zuckerberg. I wonder how they behaved at preschool during choice time!

Case studies

‘Sand tray Sam’ (Age 4, Diagnosis: Autism)
Sam’s nursery assistants were forever trying to move him on from the sand tray. None of the other children got ‘stuck’ on one activity like Sam seemed to. Once he was there he became engrossed in watching sand pour through his fingers. He repeated this action again and again, and did not seem to hear the people around him.

The staff had tried removing the sand tray. Sam did not object as they had expected. When there was no sand he simply spent all of his time at the water tray instead. He did not seem to get the unspoken rule – that ‘choice time’ wasn’t really ‘choice time’ at all. When the teacher said “choice time” what she really meant was ‘move around the different activities spending between 10 and 15 minutes in each area encountering a variety of learning opportunities. Oh, and play in a conventional way, interacting with your peers…’.

To address the situation, I created a choice board for Sam. I laminated symbols showing different activities. The activities on the tables changed often and I knew I would not keep up with them, so I marked the tables with coloured flags and made symbols to match. I got a 10 minute timer to use in case Sam needed an extra visual reminder that time at choice stations was limited. As Sam transitioned to an area he would remove the symbol from the board and post it in a box. He could still ‘choose’ a symbol, but once he’d tried something he would have to wait until he had had a go at all the other activities before returning to what would be his first choice.

Adding this visual structure helped Sam and the staff supporting him so much.

‘Little Lily’s “Nuthin’” days’ (Age 5, Diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome)
Lily was a very talkative little girl, but when her mum would ask her what she’d done in school she drew a blank…

“What did you do at school, Lily?” Mum would say.

Lily would pause as if recollecting the day in detail, but then reply, “Nuthin’.”

I suggested to Lily’s mum that she try rephrasing the question. Rather than ask in her usual way, instead say, “Lily, tell me three things you did at nursery today.”

The next day Lily’s mum arrived with a big smile. She said she’d changed the question and asked for three things. Lily had paused to think about her day as usual, but instead of the usual “Nuthin’” she told her mum about how she’d had a shiny green apple and a cracker at snack, and how she spread butter on the cracker herself. She ate the cracker and Mrs Moore had said that she was a good girl for sitting so well. She then told her mum all about the ‘Going on A Bear Hunt’ story she had heard, and how Annie had her hair in bunches and she had wanted to touch it, but she knew she wasn’t supposed to, so she sat on her hands. Finally, she told Mum that a boy had cried and it had made such a terrible noise she had wanted to leave and went to the toilet until Mrs Moore came and told her he had stopped.

Lily’s mum was so happy to have found a way to gain insights into Lily’s day. Lily had not been able to tell her Mum everything about nursery as there were too many things that happened. Providing structure to the question had allowed Lily to answer and give details.

Things that help

Five simple ideas to help children choose…

1. Create a choice board to give the child a visual to show they need to try all the activities on offer.

2. Use timers at different choice areas or have a timer that goes off every 15 minutes to indicate that it’s time to move on.

3. Limit choices. Show the child less options and let them select one.

4. Praise them when they do choose, and support them when they can’t.

5. Demonstrate what to do in different areas so children feel more secure in trying something new.

Final thoughts

If you are not getting the response you had hoped for from a child, rewind and reassess. Think about how you have presented your expectation. When a child won’t choose, it is often because they need more direct instruction or some visual structure to help them.

And remember, the child who finds it difficult to make a choice could be the one with the most potential to one day make a discovery.

Adele Devine is a teacher at Portesbery School & director of SEN Assist.