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Choice-Making and Motivation

An image of colored pencils with the blog post title, "Choice-Making and Motivation"

I teach a college course for special education teachers that primarily focuses on classroom and behavior management. One of the topics we discuss in the course is student motivation. During this discussion, I like to bring up the impact of giving students choices on their motivation to participate in activities.

According to some research studies cited by Elliott and Dillenburger (2016), there is some preliminary research evidence that students with autism and developmental disabilities are more engaged in activities and show less “disruptive” behavior when they are given a choice of activities, rather than being presented with a teacher-selected activity. To me, this makes sense that a child would enjoy a self-selected activity. Even if you have a specific activity that you want your child or student to do, there are other ways to give choices within an activity.

An example that I like to share is a study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis in 2010 looked at the effect of providing choices on on-task behavior. The study involved four boys with autism, ages 5 to 8 years, and examined how on-task (or engaged) they were with learning activities when they were given choices compared to when they were not given choices.

When working with a one-on-one teacher, the boys were sometimes provided with the choice of activities. They could point to (or otherwise indicate) either a clear box containing a color matching activity or a clear box containing a shape matching activity.

At other times, the teacher chose the activity, but the boys were provided with a choice of materials, such as using colored pencils or crayons.

Their rates of on-task behavior were higher when they were able to choose either which activity to do or which materials to use.

Another research study by Koegel, Singh, and Koegel (2010) gave students with autism (ages 4 to 7 years) an academic activity, but they included specific motivational components in the activity (choice, interspersal of maintenance tasks, and including natural reinforcers). The choices provided to students were a choice of writing materials (such as pen, crayon, pencil, or marker) and where to sit to do the activity. Since there were various strategies used, it isn’t possible to say that the choice-making alone made a difference, but it was part of a successful overall approach. You can read about the other strategies used in the article (in the reference list for this post).

If you have a specific activity that you need your child or student to do, you can offer choices by making a schedule. Have either photos or words that represent various activities (including the one you need the student to do and some activities that you think the student would like) and allow the student to choose the order that you do them. Put the pictures or words in that order to make a schedule.

Other ideas for offering choices include:

  • What color paper to write on,

  • Whether to change activities in 3 minutes or five minutes,

  • How many math problems to do, such as 10 or 12,

  • Choosing which book to read from several options,

  • Choosing a topic to write about,

  • Choosing a reward to work for,

  • Etc.

Please feel free to leave a comment with any other ideas for giving students choices. Thanks!


Elliott, C., Dillenburger, K. (2016). The effect of choice on motivation for young children on the autism spectrum during discrete trial teaching. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 16(3), 187-198. doi: 10.1111/1471-3802.12073

Koegel, L. K., Singh, A. S., & Koegel, R. L. (2010). Improving motivation for academics in children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 1057- 1066. doi: 10.1007/s10803-010-0962-6

Ulke-Kurkcuoglu, B. & Kircaali-Iftar, G. (2010). A comparison of the effects of providing activity and material choice to children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(4), 717-721.

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