SEL Teaching Practices

Bringing Responsibility and Choice into the Classroom

By Laura Driscoll

Responsibility and choice is the degree to which teachers allow students to make responsible decisions in their classroom.

Why It's Important

Making student responsibility and choice a part of your classroom helps students:

  • gain a better understanding of themselves as learners, 
  • struggle and plan in a controlled setting, 
  • and stay engaged with their work.

It does not mean that students are calling the shots. Think of it like bowling. The goal is to knock down all the pins. Students can choose their ball; you can put bumpers in the gutter. The end goal doesn't change, but how they get there and their say in that path will change.

Ideas for the Classroom

Create Classroom Norms

This one is probably familiar. Involve students at the beginning and throughout the year in developing and enforcing classroom norms. Norms are everything from your positively phrased classroom rules to procedures to consequences. 

Allowing students to have meaningful input into the development of norms helps them buy into the system and respect it.

Students can give input about picking seats or changing classroom jobs. They can even have a say in the norms for consequences. For example, what is a fair consequence for pushing another student or not finishing work constantly?

Plan Events

Have classroom or community events? Then, put those students to work.

Providing students with the opportunity to plan class breakfasts or celebrations gives them ownership and pride over the event and their work at those events.

In one of my previous schools, a different grade was responsible for planning the monthly community meeting. Students decided on the schedule, contacted speakers, and wrote skits. It was their event.

Choose Seats

Let's talk about flexible seating. I'm not a fan. Well, I'm a skeptical fan. However, I think the aspect of providing students with responsibility and choice is fantastic. Students get to figure out where they feel comfortable and choose a space that will let them accomplish their goals.

On the other hand, I can feel every occupational therapist shudder from here. Especially for younger students, seating is best when students are in a 90-90-90 position. Meaning they look like a chair when they sit.

If you are a flexible seating skeptic like me, consider when you can allow students to pick their work spaces. During partner work? Writer's workshop? Can students use clipboards? Read on the rug?

Pre-flexible seating, I had a teacher who would mark a box on the floor for a student to stand or sit in while working. It allowed the fidgety young boy to move around while still having limits. Again, responsibility and choice are critical to accommodations like this.

Help Peers

Peer-tutoring has a large evidence base and is a valuable practice to incorporate. 

An excellent additional benefit is that students feel responsible when sharing their learning with another student and feel responsible for that student's learning. 

Homework Choice

Homework is the worst. Teachers, parents, and kids hate it. It doesn't have an extensive evidence base, but we are stuck with it.

One thing you can do to help with homework engagement and completion is to give students a choice over what they complete. Students can complete ten math problems, two out of three questions, or one kind of spelling work.

Choice Boards

Using game formats like tic-tac-toe or bingo, write down the work to do in each box. Students can choose what assignments they want to complete based on your guidelines or even the order they wish to finish them.


I mentioned letting students plan classroom events. They can also have input into work celebrations. For example, do students want their final writing product celebrated by being put on the bulletin board, during a writing breakfast with their parents, or maybe with another class?

Test Questions

Same as with homework and classwork, you can allow students to choose a certain number of questions to complete from a test. Break it into sections for the whole test or the type of question. 

This gives the student responsibility and choice over their work and performance. 

Provide the Guardrails

So choice does not equal Lord of the Flies, but switching to a classroom with more student input can be daunting. Unfortunately, it can also be ripe for mistakes.

Limit Choices

Students can struggle with too many choices. If students struggle to make a choice, consider limiting the number of options.

This is also helpful for your planning. You don't need eight options for every assignment. Two or three are sufficient. And sometimes there is just one choice, and that is fine too.

Clear Expectations

Students planning an event in class will need clear expectations and structure about the requirements and what is not allowed. Same with the choice around independent projects. Provide clear expectations using rubrics, due dates, and reflection questions.

Turn Back Now

When you provide students with choices, they might make the wrong one. 🙂 That's the fun.

Know the point that students have to turn back and start again if they aren't happy with their choice. For a project, when do they have to pick a final topic? When selecting seating, when can they choose somewhere else?

How can you foster a community where responsibility and choice are integrated? What benefits do you see for your classroom or school?

Other teaching practices that promote Social Emotional Learning

About Laura

I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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