Responsible Decision Making

3 ways to foster responsible decision making in your students

By Amber Chandler

As the school year begins in earnest, we realize that so many of the “problems” we encounter in our classroom are the result of our students’ inability to make responsible decisions.

You don’t have to teach for very long to have encountered a situation that has you shaking your head or nearly spitting your coffee in the face of a second grader with a penny in her nose. The fact is, responsible decision making is one of the most important social and emotional learning competencies that we can instill in our students as we are helping them reach their academic grades. Here are three tips to incorporate discussions of “responsible decision making” into your everyday classroom routines:

Monday Motivators

It can seem like all week we are in a constant struggle to retain our students’ attention, but Monday morning is an entirely different battle. Sure, students may be in the room, looking right at you, but are they “there”? We have to remember that even though our weekend was relaxing and restful, some of our students had to face unbelievable challenges that would break our hearts. Some students spent the weekend without proper nutrition, some slept on couches at relatives houses as their parents were working, and others faced unsettling adult situations, or they were the caregiver for their siblings. I like to bring students back to school on Mondays with a “motivator,” which is usually a quick video or activity. Here are three videos that will focus our students’ attention on making good decisions while also inspiring them:

Elementary: Mr Heath’s “Making Choices Song”

Middle: Nick Vujcic “You Have a Choice”

High School: “The Best Motivational Video of 2015” with Tony Robbins

Each video can be used as a stand alone segment, or can be incorporated into your lessons for the day. Grounding kiddos on Mondays with a message that they can make good decisions is a great start to the week.


I’ve said it a million times, but if I weren’t an ELA teacher, I’d love to be a history teacher. I encourage students to read biographies as a part of their independent reading, but I never fit in a full study of an historical figure. This lesson plan from is a perfect example of studying character traits as a means to explore good decision making within the academic curriculum. When studying any new era, identify the players who had to make difficult decisions and begin the unit with a “Leading Lady” or “Head Hero.”

Having students creatively interact with a person from history who had to make huge decisions is a memorable way for students to engage with content that is required, but also the perfect opportunity for students to think about the cause/effect of decisions. These videos are helpful to teach cause/effect:

Elementary: “If You Give A Moose a Muffin”

Middle: “Cause and Effect” by Shmopp

High School: “Climate 101: Cause and Effect” by National Geographic

Use these videos to promote conversations about cause and effect, keeping the original academic intent, but also add opportunities for students to reflect on their own personal choices.

Ethics for Students

As I was writing The Flexible SEL Classroom: Practical Ways to Build Social-Emotional Learning in Grades 4-8 (out in September), I was particularly interested in ways we could engage students in scenarios–rehearsals for future life decisions. I love this ShareMyLesson* mini-unit on the decision making process, which includes a really intense activity that emphasizes the tremendous responsibility that comes with making decisions. I’ve done some of my own ethics lessons with students, such as this “Thermometer” from the new book to help students “take the temperature” of how they feel about certain topics. I come back around to the idea of rehearsal. If students have never considered a situation, they are likely to act impulsively or simply go along with what is happening if they don’t have a plan or idea.

Last summer was the first time I let my daughter go to a friend’s house where I wasn’t super close (refrigerator privileges!) friends with the parents. Before I dropped her off we went through a long list of “What if?” questions that would certainly have required me to call Child Protective Services if these scenarios happened. Imagine my surprise when I called the parent, telling her that I’d be there to pick up Zoey in 10 minutes. The mom said, “Better make that 15 minutes. We’re at the mall.” When I started breathing again, I was furious with my daughter. How could she go anywhere without asking me? She had a phone. THIS was the justification for the phone.

Once she was in the car, I hate to say, I let loose. “How could you? You know better than to just get in the car with someone and not tell me.” She burst into tears and explained that she simply was frozen. She didn’t know what to do, and it didn’t occur to her to call me, nor did she know how to tell the mother to call me. As she said, “This situation was not supposed to come up.” A year later, I’m pretty sure she’d know how to handle this same situation, but it makes me so nervous to know that I can’t prepare her for all the scenarios she’ll encounter.

Ultimately, that’s where we are with our students as well. We’d like to give them all of the scenarios and have them work through them in a rehearsal setting. However, we all know that is impossible. That doesn’t mean though that we should give up because making decisions is like utilizing a muscle. The more we work the muscle with opportunities to engage, rehearse, and reflect, the more likely it will have some “muscle memory” of what to do in similar circumstances.

*Note: ShareMyLesson requires the creation of a free account to access materials.

Share a story or strategy to teach responsible decision making in the comments section below. Thanks for contributing!

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8.