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Let Me Choose

Giving children the opportunity to choose for themselves helps them develop thinking skills critical to social and academic success.


This article explains the findings of the research paper “A summary of Parent Provision of Choice Is a Key Component of Autonomy Support in Predicting Child Executive Function Skills” Castelo et al., Front. Psychol., 10 January 2022

Sec. Developmental Psychology, Volume 12 – 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.773492

Key Takeaways:

  • Early Executive Function (EF) skills matter: Developing decision-making skills early in life  is crucial for various outcomes like social competence, emotion regulation, school readiness, and academic achievement.

  • Parental and caregiver Influence is significant: Parents and caregivers play a vital role in promoting positive EF skill development, especially during early childhood when children spend a lot of time with their caregivers.

  • Autonomy-Supportive care: Autonomy-supportive care behaviors, such as adapting assistance, using positive communication, recognizing the child’s perspective, and offering choices, are consistently related to children’s EF skills.

  • Choices and EF Skills: Providing children with age-appropriate choices appears to have a unique impact on promoting EF skill development. Allowing children to make decisions helps them develop a sense of control over their actions, aligning with the conscious control needed for EF.

  • Future Research: Ongoing studies are exploring whether children’s behaviors related to choice (such as how many options they prefer) predict their EF skills. This will lead to a better understanding of how children make decisions and guide the creation of guidelines on providing optimal choices to support EF skills and overall well-being.


By understanding and applying these findings, parents and caregivers can actively support the development of their children’s executive function skills, fostering their growth, independence, and overall success.

The Importance of Caregivers in EF Development

We all know that the skills we learn when we’re little can make a big difference as we grow up. Things like getting along with others, controlling our emotions, and being ready for school are all important for kids’ development (Allan et al., 2014, McClelland et al., 2013; Willoughby et al., 2017). Scientists have been busy studying how we can help children get better at these skills, which they call “executive function” (EF). These are the brain-based processes that allow us to remember goals, resist impulses, and think flexibly. And guess what? Caregivers have a very important role to play in helping children develop these skills.

Think about it this way: when we are young, we spend a lot of time with our parents and caregivers. Scientists who study how our brains work have shown that this time is crucial for helping us learn and grow, especially when it comes to our thinking skills.

Researchers have discovered there are lots of things caregivers can do to help kids get better at these important skills. They’ve noticed that when caregivers are warm, caring, and encourage children to think, it can make a big difference (Fay-Stammbach et al., 2014).

Researchers have discovered there are lots of things caregivers can do to help kids get better at these important skills. They've noticed that when caregivers are warm, caring, and encourage children to think, it can make a big difference

Understanding How Autonomy-Supportive Care Builds EF Skills in Children

There is one particular way of care that has caught their attention, and it’s called “autonomy-supportive care.”  In other words, it means parents and  teachers structuring things in ways  that let kids feel like they’re in charge of what they do. This includes helping kids when they need it, using positive words to cheer them on, and giving them choices that are right for their age. Studies have found that when parents and caregivers do these things a lot, children tend to have stronger EF skills (Distefano et al., 2018; Meuwissen et al., 2019).

Here’s the new discovery: not all parts of this autonomy-supportive care are equally important for helping kids with their thinking skills when they’re young. To dig deeper, researchers did a study with children aged 3 to 5 years old and their caregivers (Castelo et al., 2022). They gave them puzzles that were a bit tough for the children to solve on their own, so they needed some help. They recorded how caregivers and children worked together and looked at four different ways caregivers helped:

  1. Adapting Assistance: How well parents changed their help based on what the kids needed.
  2. Positive Communication: How parents used encouraging words to show they were there to help.

  3. Child’s Perspective: How parents considered what kids were thinking.

  4. Choice and Pace: How parents gave children chances to make their own choices and go at their own speed.

The children also did activities to test their executive function skills. These included waiting for a reward and playing a digital game, the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS). 

Each of these ways caregivers helped was linked to stronger executive function skills in children. But when the researchers compared the different forms of autonomy supportive care, they found that letting kids make choices was most strongly related to executive function skills. 

Why Letting children Choose Improves Thinking Skills

This whole idea makes sense when we think about how our brains work. Our executive function skills help us control ourselves, stop doing things that might not be good, and do things that help us reach our goals. To accomplish these things, we need to believe that we have control over what we do and that our actions matter. When caregivers let children make their own choices, it helps them feel like they’re in charge, which is a super important part of these thinking skills. As Carlson (2023) put it: “Before children can control how they act, think, or feel, they must have a sense of choice in how to act, think, or feel.”

What’s Next in Future Research

The study by Castelo et al. (2022) focused on how parents give children choices, but there’s more to explore. Researchers are now looking at whether the choices kids make also predict how good they are at using their brains. They want to figure out how kids respond when they are faced with choices, how many options to provide at different ages, and what are some reasonable limits on choice – after all, having ice cream for breakfast just might not be an option!This kind of research can help us understand better how to help children grow up to have strong EF skills and make good decisions.

So, for all the parents and caregivers out there, here’s the scoop: helping kids get better at using their brains involves something special called autonomy-supportive care. It’s about giving children choices and letting them feel in control. Studies show that this approach can really give kids a boost in their thinking skills. As more research unfolds, we’ll learn even more about how kids’ choices and their thinking skills go hand in hand. By understanding this, parents and caregivers can guide their kids in ways that make their brains even stronger and better equipped for success.

Dad learning about executive function while holding baby