Choice Theory – Does It Work?

Today I’m going to be talking to you about something called ‘Choice Theory’; you may have come across this before and I just want to give you a little refresher around it. I won’t be going into tons and tons of detail but I think reminding ourselves that this is a methodology that can be incredibly helpful for us as professionals or for you guys as parents. In fact, it’s one of my favourite tools to suggest with the parents and professionals that I see in Hertfordshire as it helps to bring about the best sorts of behaviour from the young people that you’re working with.

For those of you who don’t know what choice theory is all about let me give you a rundown. We know that people are behaving all of the time and we cannot control other people’s behaviours. The best that we can do is shape, manipulate, put boundaries in place, persuade and influence but that’s really about it. We do not have control over what other people are going to do. With choice theory we are able to actually give people ownership over their behaviours; we’re able to give children ownership over their behaviours and the choices that they make as a result of doing those certain behaviours. What that does is it gives them bags of responsibility and that is a good thing because when you take responsibility for what is happening in your own little universe, what that does for you is empower you and it makes you feel good. It then causes our young person to, hopefully, begin to make even wiser choices going forward, because they begin to learn what makes them feel good. Here’s how Choice Theory works.

Let’s imagine that we have a young person who comes home very, very late after we’d already set a curfew of a couple of hours earlier – they had us worried out of our minds! What we can say to this young person, in this instance, is either ‘you screwed up and you’re not going to be getting to go out again’ or we could say ‘this is the third time you’ve done this’ or we could say to them ‘you made a choice last night, you chose to stay out later than we had agreed and there are going to be consequences for that choice’ and then work around whatever the consequences might be.

With choice theory we are avoiding bringing up all of the other past mistakes, we’re just going to work with what’s happening here and now at this moment. We’re going to avoid criticising and instead, we’re going to focus on what can be done (so more or less focusing on the positives) but it’s more about what they have within their power to do that is positive.

We don’t want them focusing on the thing that could go horribly wrong because then they may be more drawn towards that, instead we’re going to point out the choices that they have that could lead them towards a positive result instead. For example, ‘if you stick to the curfew of coming home on time then that means that I’m going to trust you more when it comes to the party for next week and maybe we can negotiate the timings on that one’. We’re also going to encourage our young person to reflect upon the choices that they have made that maybe causes them unpleasant or unwanted outcomes because that’s where the learning is going to come from. We don’t want to be brushing this stuff under the carpet and hoping for the best because no one gets to learn out of that.

Having reflective conversations about what happened and what could have been done differently and would maybe be done differently moving forward is a very positive thing to do. Here’s the thing with giving that responsibility to anyone, let alone young people, is that responsibility is hard and it is heavy and sometimes it can feel a bit much – so we’ve got to make ourselves available to our young people. When we’re using something like Choice Theory, which really puts a great deal of emphasis on them taking responsibility for the choices they have available to them rather than us telling them what they will or won’t do, is that when we start taking the responsibility for ourselves it can feel like quite a burden.

We need to be available to those young people giving them an opportunity to explain to us about what they’re finding difficult about their responsibilities: what’s challenged them, what would they do differently next time, how do their peers do things in a slightly different way, what the benefits might be either way? The good thing with Choice Theory is that we are proving to the young people that we’re working with that we trust them with that responsibility that we’re giving them, and that trust alone will go a long way to building your relationships in a positive way with them. It will also go a long way to proving to them that you have belief in them and that they, therefore, should have that same belief in themselves. The ramifications of using Choice Theory in your approach as a parent or as a professional are, in my opinion, really rather good.

By Gemma Bailey

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