Use the forced choice paradigm – When kids are upset, they can do lots of things: melt down, lash out, shut down, etc. All these states represent altered neuropsychological functioning, usually marked by an excess of emotion that the body is unable to process. If the body is overloaded on emotion, the “lizard brain” (the oldest part of the brain, responsible for our fight or flight instinct and essentially keeping us alive) is activated. The “lizard brain” keeps the “wizard brain” (our most modern part of the brain, responsible for insight, reflection, creativity, and language) from engaging fully. This brain dynamic made a lot of sense when we were cave people being chased by Sabre-Toothed Tigers, but doesn’t fit as well in the modern age.
The problem is that most of our coping skills require language, either to express our needs (“hey I need a break”) or to respond to requests (“do you need help?”). When our gifted kids are so activated, the parts of their brains that normally respond verbally to prompts are, for all intents and purposes, offline. So when we, as well-meaning teachers and parents, ask a million questions of a very upset child, we are not meeting the needs of our children in that moment. When our kids are that upset, we need to do more of the work for them.
A great way to manage the difficulties of decision-making in moments of big emotion is to use the forced-choice paradigm. When gifted kids are upset, we need to ask very well-meaning questions (i.e., “How can I help?” “What’s wrong?” “What do you need?”) that require verbal expression and creativity. When they are emotionally flooded, the skills are not present to respond appropriately. Instead, giving two options to choose from allows the child to engage minimally while still making a positive choice. Making a choice can help the brain and body re-regulate such that they can start to use more skills; it brings the “wizard brain” back online.
To use this technique appropriately, think about what you know about your children and students. What do they Like? Love? What is motivating to them? What is demoralizing to them? We always want to ask questions in a positive direction to promote resilience and skill-building, so having a positive set of options at your disposal will make your job easier. Forced choice sets are about getting someone unstuck and are never about punishment.
You might say to your child: “What do you want for a snack?” In the forced-choice paradigm, you add in two options: “Carrot sticks or pretzels?” A smaller set of options helps the brain narrow focus and regulate. Even if the child gives a third option (i.e., “Bananas!”) you are still moving in the right direction. Depending on the situation, you can honor a request for an option that wasn’t given. Sometimes, you can even honor the request if they ask for both things! However, if you are seeking to have forced-choice options to get a child away from a peer, task, or object that is problematic, you would not honor that request.
Some examples include:
If your child is fighting doing homework: “Should we start with math or writing?”
If your child is delaying going to bed: “Do you need a story or a snack?”
If you don’t want your child playing football “You can sign up for hockey or golf”
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