Using Choices to Improve Challenging Behavior

using choices to improve challenging behaviors

Using Choices to improve challenging behaviors

Using choices to improve challenging behavior is the easiest way to combat those negative behaviors.  All it takes is some practice and you will be whipping out choices for your students all day long.  Using choices is a great antecedent intervention that we can incorporate into our student's entire school day.  When we start using the power of choices as an intervention, we want to use them prior to starting those non-preferred tasks or activities.  

Using choices can be used in the home and the school setting.  Parents are able to use this intervention as well.  Neurotypical and neurodivergent students alike would love using choices!

If you want to read more on how to teach protesting in the special education classroom, you can read this blog post.

special education student making choices

Let them choose the order

If you think about the real world and everyday life, no one is telling us the order in which we have to do any non-preferred activities.  There are things on my everyday to-do lists that I don't want to do, but I must do them.  Things like feeding the dog, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, and folding that dreaded basket of laundry that has been sitting there all week.  If someone told me what order I had to do those tasks in, that would absolutely drive me nuts!!

However, there are tasks and activities that we just cannot do out of order. You would want to avoid giving your students the power of choice in those specific situations.  For example, if I have to prep the vegetables before I make dinner, I won't be prepping the vegetables afterward.

visual schedules in the special education classroom

Teaching decision-making skills

Offering students choices allows them to make decisions which is a big piece of self-advocacy.  You want to make sure that kids understand how to make a decision depending on their age and developmental levels.  When you are first starting out, we want to make sure that we are practicing these skills when they are doing a preferred activity.  For example, if Susie wants to play with Playdoh: we might say, “do you want the red playdoh or green playdoh?” 

In addition, you might want to start with tangible items instead of abstract ideas.  For example, instead of saying which color playdough, you might have the tangible items in your hands for the student to make a visual choice. 

Developing these decision-making skills is great practice for kids.  This is one of the best benefits of offering choices for non-preferred activities. 

offering a student choices to reduce problem behaviors

Keep the choices simple

Typically when you are offering choices to a student, you want to try to make them as simple as possible and try and stick with only two options.  You don't want to use a choice board for some students, that have 12 different options on it because then they will have decision-overwhelm.  Students might take a long time to choose and sometimes even become frustrated with the number of choices given.  Stick with two options. 

Also, you want to make sure that you are avoiding open-ended questions.  For example, my husband and I are going on a date night, and he says to me, “what do you want to do tonight?” (open-ended question).   I usually say, “I don't know, what do you want to do?”  Does this conversation sound familiar?  This happens to us all the time.  I have come to tell my husband to just give me some choices and I can choose from there.  So, from now on, when he remembers, he will say, “Do you want to go to the movies or the casino, tonight?” This creates so much less stress this way.  

The same goes for students.  Avoid those open-ended questions altogether.  You don't want to say, “do you want to start your math?”  The answer will always be no, and then guess what?  You are stuck because the student absolutely has to do the math.  But by offering choices for how it gets done, where it gets done is so much better.

special needs student is offered choices to reduce behavior

Having Control

You want to make sure that the student feels like they have some type of control over their day and their assignments to reduce those problems and challenging behaviors, especially with students on the spectrum.  However, you want to make sure that the demand that you are asking the child is still getting done.  For example, if you need to go to Target, which I absolutely do every week, to pick up household supplies.  You would not offer the child a choice of either going to target or going to the library!  Your goal is to get household supplies, the child NEEDS to go with you, so you can offer them choices in other ways.

Target Choices Examples

  • You can walk with me or sit in the cart?
  • You can push the cart or carry the list?
  • You or mommy can grab the kitty litter?
  • You or mommy can put the items on the conveyor belt?


There are so many different ways to offer choices when you need to get something done.  This will reduce problem behaviors. Making sure that you are clear about what the end goal is will help you understand how to give choices.  I know a lot of people who can get into a power struggle with students because they have forgotten all about the gaol.  For example, if Johnny needs to complete his morning work, but he wants to do it in pen standing up, but the paraprofessional is insisting that Johnny sit down and use a pencil.  Like, who cares how it gets done, all we want is the morning work complete!

student is offered choices to increase independence in special education

Daily practice leads to independent skills

When we are allowing students to practice these decision-making skills all day long, we are allowing the opportunity for great communication and independent skills to strengthen.  And hey, the more they practice, the better they will get at it.  That includes the adults as well.   Independence is the end goal here.  given choices are great at reducing the motivation to want to escape these non-preferred activities which lead to those problematic behaviors, so if we are offering choices all day every day, we should see an increase in appropriate time on task.  The more you practice offering choices the easier it will become every single day. 

Using Visual Aids

Using visual aids with students is another way to make sure that you are using choices and that students are comprehending what the choices are.  I have this Visual Aids pack in my TpT store if you are looking for something that is already made and ready to print and prep for your self-contained classroom!

I am a High School, self-contained Autism teacher from Central New York, who is passionate about individualizing student learning. I am a mommy of three, lover of all things Disney, married to my best friend and addicted to chocolate!! I hope that you find great ideas and inspiration here, so welcome!!

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