Is too much choice making children miserable?

This blog post was inspired by a recent chat I had with a friend who is part of the home-ed scene. We were talking about behaviour and she mentioned that among the extreme ‘child-led’ faction (yes, there are different factions) where children are given freedom to choose what to learn, what to do and are asked constantly how they feel about something, they are self-centred, badly behaved and miserable. It would seem that all that lovely freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, in fact, quite the opposite. I couldn’t find any academic research on choice and happiness in children, but we are all familiar with what is known as the ‘Paradox of choice‘ and how adults are affected (basically, too much choice makes us miserable); should we also think about how choice might affect little children?

Creating ‘independent learners’ usually features on primary school mission/vision statements and is especially evident in the EYFS reception year classroom. Although this document is quite old, the sentiments and direction within it still hold sway in primary schools up and down the country, minding teachers to, among other strategies, use ‘choice’ as a way of developing ‘independent learners’.

“…..time for children to follow their own ideas, to make their own choices, and develop as self-regulating learners”

Providing little children with lots of choice is, on the face of it, kind, caring and would in theory lead to children being more independent, but I think it just makes them miserable, ‘picky eaters’ who are never satisfied and are constantly thinking about their feelings. They’re not able to think rationally because they’re little children (some adults still can’t think rationally and instead just depend on how they ‘feel’ for direction in life); surely the Choice paradox is actually worse for little children?

Buffet
All this choice leads to nothing but regret (and a stomach ache)

What kind of choices to primary children have these days that didn’t exist when we were children?

  • ‘Choose your challenge’ in all lessons
  • Choice of activities in EYFS reception year
  • Which exotic piece of fruit to choose for break time snack
  • What to have for school lunch
  • When, during lessons, to have a sip of water
  • Choosing a colour/smiley/unhappy face to put by the LO at the end of every lesson
  • Which club to go to after school
  • Which enrichment activity/club to go to during lunchtimes
  • Which teacher/headteacher will be employed (student council interview)
  • What to research during topic lessons
  • Which role to take on during groupwork sessions
  • Which storyline to follow for independent writing
  • Whether to behave based on how ‘fun’ the lesson is
  • Which songs to sing in assembly
  • Which secondary school to go to

Individually, these choices seem inconsequential and ’empowering’ for the child and I’m sure you can think of quite a few others, but when we consider them in terms of the cumulative effect of constantly being minded to think about one’s feelings, I reckon many children are being guided down the character-development path of misery. OK, that’s probably a bit too dramatic and, of course, nothing is quite as clear cut (but sometimes you have to talk in terms of dichotomies in order to compare situations) as we would want.

What is the answer? I wonder if it would be best to just turn it all around and have as little choice as possible? You might argue that this would lead to children just kind of flopping back and not developing at all, but I do believe there is a place for learning to be grateful, to accept and to just get on with the job; the opposite of this is learned when we make little children’s lives one big smorgasbord of edu-choice. Also, let us think about the disadvantaged child in this situation: they’ve already had to make way too many choices that they shouldn’t have to make (such as, what to eat, if anything, for breakfast, or, where to go after school when no one’s at home) and perhaps they could benefit more from not having so many choices to make. Sure, give young people more choice as they get older and have learned to work hard rather than ‘choose’ to bail out when the going gets tough, or when they have taken on more responsibilities, but for little children? Those of use who are parents know the consequences of providing children with lots of food choices at home: it leads to fussy eaters. When are education professionals consider that providing too many choices in the classroom will lead to fussy learners?

Who’s with me?

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5 thoughts on “Is too much choice making children miserable?

  1. I’m with you.

    I watched a programme on ‘food’ recently and when people are faced with too much ‘choice’, for example at Tescos, they don’t buy as much – they’re overfaced.

    Life can become one bland experience with the smorgasbord approach – grazing for meals – a bit of this, a bit of that.

    This issue of choice and flitting around choosing activities, for example, can lead to children who cannot focus on anything for any length of time – they don’t develop their dexterity well enough – or their capacity to ‘stick with it’.

    Having said that, the i-pad and mobile phone era is leading to children mesmerised for long periods. They all have superior thumb control and swishy fingers.

    Beyond the early years, I think inability to sustain concentration is also a product of the curriculum being designed too inflexibly to squeeze everything in – so that lessons cannot be lengthened when the teacher thinks it would be a good idea to ‘stick with it’ beyond the designated half hour, or hour. Too many activities/subjects to complete on an over-stretched curriculum. Too much, too soon, too often.

    Keep it Simple – but also, some structure, some free choice. The best of both worlds?

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  2. Nice post with which I wholeheartedly agree. For me independence in learning is something that develops throughout ones life. I also feel that learning independence and/or autodidaxy is a complex issue in which kids develop at different rates depending on many interrelated factors.

    This is for me why teaching/learning needs to be child centred to some extent although there are few instances where I would advocate for student led. Mainly this might revolve around the development of thinking skills.

    Clearly when we get to 14 years of age or so in the UK, content is prescribed and there are less opportunities for learners to make content related decisions. They can however quite easily make metacognitive decsions around process.

    Generally speaking therefore I am with you, and I believe that too much choice, especially for novices is likely to be counter productive. Often, very counter productive.

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  3. It may lead to misery for kids, but mostly I’ve seen it lead to anxiety. And being completely overwhelmed. Regardless of how “fun” and how many choices children have in school, most would probably not see it anymore empowering, or enjoyable than those kids who didn’t have as many choices.

    I wish I could say this fad is just silly, but it’s more than that: it’s damaging our kids. We have more cases of anxiety and low self esteem issues than ever before, and yet the reaction here is to cast them even MORE choices. I think in a way the grown ups don’t want to take responsibility; they’d rather shift it to the child. Tough. Proper instruction has never been popular, but is HAS been effective. Let’s focus on that for a while and see what happens.

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