Responsible decision making is something that most of us already teach through our content, at least in the form of its components. We are going to address five of the major pieces, and roughly in the order that they build into each other.
1: Cause and effect relationships
If you teach any core content, you have taught this concept at some point. A major segment of learning standards across curriculum involves some form of this skill. Students have to be able to look at a situation or event, identify what caused it to happen, and predict the possible outcomes based on variables.
The cause is important because it leads to ownership. I passed my test because I studied hard. I earned that raffle ticket because I was being kind. If the situation is negative, it enables ownership and a learning experience. I didn’t earn my prize because I ripped up my work. I won’t do that next time.
The effect is important, because it encourages them to think before they act. I didn’t hit the buzzer in time. I could throw a fit, but then I might not be able to play the game anymore. If I move to the back of the line and wait, I might get another turn.
2: Equitable assessments
Students need to be able to identify the potential positives and negatives of a given item, action, or interaction. Think pro/con list. Many of our students act on something that seems immediately desirable, without considering the potential drawbacks. Teaching them scenarios like this:
Brandy told me a secret. I really want to tell Jen. If I do, Jen will think I’m cool and funny. But she might tell other people, and Brandy may not want to be friends with me anymore.
Can lead to thinking like this:
I really want Mr. Simon’s attention. I can goof around—he’ll notice me and come talk to me. But he might be upset, and it might change how he thinks about me. Do I want that kind of attention?
3: Risk relationships
Once students have at least a grasp on the previous two skills, they can start to analyze risk-reward relationships, and learn to take appropriate risks. Many people overlook this aspect of SEL, but think of all the risks we take in our lives.
- Applying for college or a job
- Making new friends
- Starting a new relationship
- Starting a new project
- Deciding to have a family
- Changing careers
- Making presentations
- Learning something new
And many, many others. Some students may be afraid of risking rejection, failure, or embarrassment; they need to learn to assess if the reward obtained is worth the risk of discomfort, and find their own boundaries in the process. Other students may be all risk, and need to learn to rein it in unless it’s something really important to them.
When students understand cause and effect, and are able to make equitable assessments, they can then begin setting priorities. This, of course, has the potential to impact them greatly in many ways. They can prioritize assignments based on due date, or by its impact on their grade. They can determine what steps should be followed—and in what order—in a project or personal venture. They can organize and manage their time efficiently.
Then, something magic happens. They can naturally start to perceive and apply priority in their interpersonal relationships. Following the teacher’s expectations, in this situation, may need to take priority over making my friends laugh. I understand that my friend won’t hate me forever because I’m doing my homework instead of playing that new game with him tonight. Maybe helping out my mom should take priority over my computer time right now.
Believe it or not, kids can actually get here. I’ve seen it.
5: Problem solving
Finally, once they understand these pieces, students can start utilizing their decision-making processes to solve problems—existing or newly encountered. They can identify the cause of the problem, the positives and negatives—as well as potential effects—of possible solutions, analyze risks, and set priorities for what needs to be done.
Kids can, of course, problem solve without all of these pieces in place, but not as effectively. Talking through finding solutions can also be a great way to build capacity in the preceding areas, to help expand on their learning. Take advantage of things that come up, and use them as teachable times.
Do you have some experience with teaching concepts of decision making? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!