Jan 27, 2011 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.
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Making good decisions

One of the key lessons that children learn in school—as in life—is how to make good decisions. In so many ways, life is a sequence of decision-making moments, with every possible path bifurcating into new results, lessons and experiences.

But how does a child’s mind work in approaching and processing decisions? How does the difficulty of a decision—as well as the anticipated consequence of punishment or reward—affect future choices?

In the 2005 study, "Characterization of Children’s Decision Making: Sensitivity to Punishment Frequency, Not Task Complexity", Crone, Bunge, Latenstein and van der Molen researched and discussed this exact question.

Using a computerized variant of a standard task, the researchers studied how children of various ages approached decision-making moments. Here’s how it worked:

  • The Task: Children were asked to perform two versions of a computerized decision-making task that varied in complexity.
  • The Consequences: Researchers varied the frequency of how long the consequences of a decision (i.e., punishment) were delayed after each decision.
  • The Results:
    • Sensitivity to consequences increased only when punishments were presented infrequently.
    • The complexity or difficulty of the task did not appear to have an effect on the child’s ability to perform it.
    • Generally boys outperformed girls by making better choices.
    • Overall, older children (ages 7-12) appear comparatively unconcerned about the future except for when the potential for future punishment is high.

Now, this is all very interesting scientifically-speaking, but what about the practical insights we can glean from this study?

In school, students face decision-making moments throughout the school day, in choosing right answers in the classroom, in selecting materials in the library, and in making activity choices on the playground. In each situation, their minds—in different ways at each developmental stage of childhood—are predicting consequences and weighing outcomes.

As educators, the more aware we are of their developmental abilities in how those decisions are made, the better we can help guide each individual child’s development and learning for success.