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Hannah’s story

Four-year-old Hannah had just arrived at preschool. She usually first went to the painting table, but today the children she plays with were in the sandpit. She stood at the door uncertainly for a few minutes. An early childhood staff member came up to her and asked her what she would like to do. Hannah said she did not know.

The staff member knew Hannah usually liked the art table and said: "I know you like the art table and you like to play with your friends, but today they are not in the same place. Would you like to do a painting first or play with your friends?" Hannah seemed unsure and shrugged her shoulders, and the staff member said "You could do some painting and then play with your friends later, or you could ask one of the others if they would like to paint a picture with you." Hannah then told the staff member she would play with her friends in the sandpit.

Adults can help children make decisions by encouraging them to look for different ways to solve problems, and providing some helpful suggestions.

The foundations for making wise decisions

Our lives are full of small decisions—what to wear, what to have for breakfast and what to take to work or an early childhood service. These small decisions make up who we are and how we spend our time. Later there will be big decisions, such as who to live with or whether to try smoking, and these decisions strongly affect our lives.

The foundations for wise decision making come from the early years; parents and carers are children’s first teachers. Parents and carers hope their children will learn to make wise decisions for the big issues as well as for the small ones. From infancy, it is important for children to have opportunities to make decisions on their own. This will help develop their sense of self, confidence, self-esteem, and lead to positive mental health and wellbeing. This topic is about how you can help children learn the skills and attitudes for decision making throughout life.

Decision-making skills develop through the earliest relationships infants have with their carers.

How can parents and carers support children to make decisions?

Being loving and responsive
When parents and carers are warm, loving and respond to babies’ and young children’s needs and communications, young children are able to focus on, and enjoy learning and exploring. When parents and carers are loving, supportive and see things from the child’s point of view, children are better able to learn and develop self-management skills. They are more capable of achieving what they want to do and strengthen their self confidence and emotional wellbeing.

Being predictable
Babies and young children need to be able to predict how people will respond to them and what the world around them is like. Parents and carers can help children make predictions by responding to them consistently. For example, children take comfort in knowing they will get food they like when they are hungry, they will get a caring response when they are distressed and they will be put to sleep when they are tired. Consistent adult behaviour gives children a safe base to explore the world and try new things. If children are unsure who will be there for them or how people will respond to them, it is harder for them to know what to expect and decide what they need to do. For example, if a preschool child does something wrong and is unsure how adults will react, it is harder for the child to decide what to do and whom to tell.

Using words
Words help children learn how to think. Talking to children as you make decisions provides them with important tools for developing their understanding, decision-making and language skills. Even before a baby understands words, adults can use words to make the world more predictable and help children make sense of what is happening for them. It is good for parents and carers to tell a baby what is going to happen when they pick them up, put them down, bath them and feed them. Parents can also talk to babies and toddlers about why they are doing things, and why they make the choices they do, from: "I am putting your milk in the fridge to keep it cold"; to "We will go to the shop after we pick up Sophia from school so we don’t keep her waiting." When speaking to young children, it is helpful to keep sentences short and language simple and age-appropriate.

Loving touch is especially important from birth. Touch helps reduce stress, has a positive effect on growth and brain development, and helps children develop the skills they need to make decisions. Loving touch involves holding babies and young children gently, stroking them, massaging them and giving them lots of cuddles every day. Babies who are held more cry less than those who are not. Loving touch reduces stress and improves immunity. Babies and toddlers learn through touch, for example, when toddlers touch everything while exploring.

"Besides [loving touch] being able to calm our jitters and lift our spirits, the right kind of touch regularly enough early in life can improve cognitive development, brain development, bodily health throughout life ..."1

1Diamond, A., & Amso, D. (2008). Contributions of neuroscience to our understanding of cognitive development. Current directions in psychological science, 17(2), 136–141.