Decision Making Skills for Students – 5 Ways that Mentors, Parents, Teachers, Educators, and Elders Can Help

It can be challenging to watch young people make mistakes for themselves…especially when they’re ones we’ve made too!

This guide on “Decision Making Skills for Students” will help you to keep young people stay safe and grounded, navigate potentially dangerous risk-taking situations and behaviours, and allow them the freedom to explore their limits and become more independent.

Life can change in an instant.

Whether for an individual, a family or an entire community….a single moment in time can have a ripple effect across the lives of hundreds or thousands of people.

When these changes come from positive and powerful decisions, we celebrate. But when they’re thrust upon us we can be left with grief and loss of purpose.

Earlier this year our small regional community was struck by tragedy.

On the way home from a 21st birthday, 6 teenagers made the decision to climb into a car; 2 of them got into the boot.

Returning home on country roads at night, the car sped along, the driver egged on by the high spirits of the passengers.

You know this story doesn’t end well…

What started as a night of celebration and fun ended in tragedy, devastation and a local community that’s been shattered to its core.

Though you may have no personal connection to these people, it’s a situation that may feel a little too familiar.

Like a ‘sliding doors’ moment, it’s easy to picture ourselves in their situation and be thankful that our life choices didn’t result in similar suffering.

Pushing the boundaries and taking risks is normal human behaviour and something we’re biologically wired to do, especially during the transition years from a teenager Into Adulthood.

We push ourselves, we test our limits and we grow from the experience; often our learning is greater when we fail than when we succeed!

As mentors and teachers and parents, we know that the young people we guide today will have a huge number of important life choices to make in their teenage and early adulthood years.

From voting to career paths to adult relationships to money management…decision making is an inevitable responsibility of adult life.

These aren’t choices we can make for them, nor can we shield them from the potential consequences.

Finding the “sweet spot” where you can help them stay safe and grounded, navigate potentially dangerous risk-taking situations and behaviours, and also allow them the freedom to explore their limits and become more independent is no easy task!

So here are 5 powerful ways that mentors, parents, teachers, educators, and Elders can help develop these decision-making skills for students and young people.


1- Start Conversations About Values

By the time students reach their teenage years, they often already have a strong sense of what’s important to them.

From posters of “idols” on bedroom walls and who they follow on social media, to the friends they choose and music they listen to…their minds have already developed a sense of “place” in this world, including what their interests and personal priorities are.

The challenge is helping them identify these values and the kinds of behaviours that naturally follow from them.

We recommend initiating open and reflective conversations where young people can consider questions like:

  • How do they want people to see them?
  • How do they want people to feel about them?
  • How do they want people to talk about them?
  • Where do they feel their values and behaviours aren’t currently in sync?

A great approach in starting these discussions by asking students to tell you the qualities that they admire and respect in the role models or idols they already have.

2 – Share Your Stories

As an adult, mentor, parent, teacher or Elder, it can be challenging to watch young people make mistakes for themselves…especially when they’re ones we’ve made too!

It can be very tempting to want to lecture and tell young people what they should or shouldn’t do but unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect (if the advice is unasked for).

Attempts to try to control their behaviour and restrict their decision-making only leads to hostility and resentment.

Rather, we encourage you to share your stories with them about the challenges and risks you’ve encountered in your own life- be real about it and share the impacts and learnings you experienced from both good and bad decisions.

Young people will develop their own wisdom from the stories they hear, and feel more encouraged and inspired to share their own journey with you.

When you see them making great choices, make sure you affirm these with encouraging words and acknowledgement; this cycle of positive reinforcement lets them know they’re on the right path.

3 – Encourage A Gut Check

The decision-making models we often see taught are highly rational and linear. They only work when emotions are calm and we have the time and space to consider all the factors.

But the reality is this isn’t how most decisions are made, especially for teens and students.

Many decisions in our lives are actually made using intuition or a “gut check”.

Intuition is an often-overlooked and under-utilized skill in helping to make good decisions; it’s often dismissed as being too emotional or unreliable.

However, intuition has been shown to be an instinctive way of tapping into your years of stored memories, information and learning patterns.

It takes time to develop but like a “sixth sense”, it can be a great way for students to identify when they’re about to cross the line into risky or dangerous situations or behaviours.

4 – Create Space For Safe Mistakes

The reality is that we all learn by mistakes.

Sometimes we’re wise enough to learn from the mistakes of others, but often it’s our own mistakes that carry the most important lessons.

That’s why it’s so important to create a space where students feel not only safe but welcome to explore limits and boundaries without the fear of being ashamed or embarrassed.

Scenario-based conversations equip students with the strength and conviction to make good decisions in the face of peer pressure. As you practice some role-playing examples, you can ask students to explore:

  • How they may feel
  • What they could do
  • How they could support others, and
  • How to seek help in dangerous situations

Like preloaded computer software, this allows them to draw on a framework of self-understanding in moments of pressure and real-life challenges.

It’s also interesting to note that the greatest business people, leaders and “changemakers” of any generation are those who are willing to make mistakes in the pursuit of something incredible.

Thomas Edison and his team took more than a year and over 1,200 attempts to create the first incandescent lightbulb (at a cost close to $850,000 in today’s terms).

J.K. Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before the 13th agreed to publish the first Harry Potter novel, which went on to become the highest-selling series of novels in history.

Elon Musk spent almost his entire personal fortune from co-founding PayPal in launching SpaceX, including 2 failed launch attempts before succeeding with his last “roll of the dice” and turning SpaceX into the largest privately-owned space exploration company ever.

Ultimately, it pays to make mistakes and learn from each one.

By creating a space for safe mistakes in a classroom or learning environment you can remove a lot of the social stigma that often comes with making mistakes or unhelpful behaviours. 

Depersonalizing these mistakes also helps students learn from these errors without taking on self-blame or feeling like “there’s something wrong with me.”

5 – Think Things Through

The challenge in using a “Think Things Through” approach for teenage students is that their pre-frontal cortex simply isn’t as developed as an adult.

They’re more likely to be driven by emotion and mimicking the behaviours of significant adults and peers than applying logic and reasoning.

But even though they’re less likely to use rational thinking in their decision-making, we’ve still included it in this list as a skill to help them start developing.

There are many rational decision-making models that can equip young people with an internal process, and most of these models follow a similar structure:

  • Identify the decision to be made
  • Gather relevant information
  • Identify alternative solutions
  • Evaluate the options
  • Choose a course of action
  • Implement the decision
  • Review the outcome

This feedback loop is a repeatable way to help students develop introspection and review the outcomes of their decisions.

Models like these are great for teasing out the many elements that go into bigger choices like, “Which career path is best for me?”, or “Where should I buy a house?”, or “What qualities do I want in a future life partner?”

They also work equally well for simple daily decisions like, “What do I want to wear today?”, “Who do I want to spend time with this weekend?”, and “Should I REALLY be posting this on social media?”.

Wherever possible, brainstorm group decisions with your students and allow them to gather the elements and then, like magic, bring it all together and make an informed decision together.

Creating an open dialogue for students to share their unique and differing viewpoints is also a great way to help them develop empathy for others and the fact that everyone “sees” life through a different lens.


Ultimately, it’s all about Social and Emotional Learning…

These suggestions are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to giving your students the opportunity to practise good decision-making skills and flex their decision-making ‘muscles’. 

The goal of any proactive educational environment is to facilitate discussions that allow students to reflect on who they are and what behaviours are consistent with their identity.

Decision making for students is one of the key outcomes for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and we’ve shared other ideas you can incorporate through our article on student wellbeing activities in the classroom 

Alternatively, to help you start using Social and Emotional Learning with the students you teach or mentor, we’ve created a free Social & Emotional Learning ebook that you can download here.

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AdventureworksWA | Experts in creating space to navigate your future

AdventureWorks and its team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging. AdventureWorks further pledge our commitment to increasing understanding and connection to Aboriginal Australians through the work we do with young Australians and as individuals.

 

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2021-12-11T07:18:13+08:00
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