How to Help Children Accept ‘NO’ by Giving Choices

How to Help Children Accept ‘NO’ by Giving Choices

How in the world do you teach children to accept ‘no’?  Give choices! While this is not always an easy task, these tips for how to help children accept ‘no’ by making choices will surely help if you use them!

My friend, Lisette, over at Speech Sprouts, asked what I did to help kids understand and accept ‘no’. It takes a lot of work and very few 2-3 year-olds will easily accept ‘no’ for something they truly want! But there are some strategies you can use to help kids start moving along the path to accepting ‘no.’

no, temper, tantrum, meltdown, choice boards

Avoid yes or no questions! Give choices instead.

Be careful how you word your questions! Asking a child, “Do you want A ?” implies that you are asking them for their wishes. This leaves it open for them to say, “No, I want B.” when B is not an option. Then you have to say “No.”

Instead, try “Today we have A or B. Which one do you want?” While some kids will then reply, “I want C!” this leaves it open for you to say, “I like C, too, but today we get to pick from A or B.”  You notice that this response did not include the ‘N’ word! Sometimes just hearing that word sets some kids off!

To make it even more visual, hold up the two items that the child can choose from. If your kid says something different, you can just answer, “I have this and this. Which one do you want?”

choices, accepting no, speech therapy

Choice boards help kids learn to handle ‘no.’

To do this visually, use a choice board!

Visuals are important to help kids see the choices, even for verbal kids. They don’t have to be fancy, just a ‘no’ item and 2 pictured choices.

  • Place the ‘no’ symbol on the item that isn’t a choice. This item can even be the cabinet where snacks are stored.
  • While they see the ‘no’ symbol, they also see that there will be other choices available.
  • Without the visual, they will hear the ‘no’ and can have a meltdown before processing the other choices.

Practice accepting ‘no’ in a less emotional context first.

First, help your students understand ‘no’ (whether visually or verbally) in activities where they don’t care as much. Don’t start teaching using their favorites! Build up to hearing ‘no’ when it actually is something that the child wants.  Let them learn first that there will be other good options, even if not their #1 choice.

Note: Some students are just not able to handle ‘no’ for various reasons. But don’t make the mistake of giving in to tantrums or outbursts and give them what they want! As painful as it can be to outwait a sobbing or screaming child, you will only be making it more likely that it will continue if you give in.

Here are some tips and ideas for how to slowly build a child’s acceptance of hearing ‘no.’

5 strategies to help children with ‘NO’

accepting no, AAC, speech therapy

Make the ‘NO’ choice a ‘no’ for someone else.

See this picture? I  never had a kid get upset when they couldn’t feed a make-believe chocolate chip cookie in shoebox play. It is great practice for realizing that sometimes there is another choice that is okay. Read more here.

These steps help build a child’s ability to gradually accept ‘no’ during increasingly meaningful situations. Save saying ‘no’ to their favorites until your child realizes that ‘no’ is not always the end of the world. But if they react with a meltdown, divert their attention and go back to the last successful step the next day. Children with autism may need these more specific steps in order to build choice-making skills for accepting ‘no.’

Note that the pictures are about cookies, but you can try this with toys, activities, or other favorites, too!

1. Make the ‘NO’ choice something that the child doesn’t like.

making choices, accepting no, speech therapy, autism

This is a great place to start for kids who just react to the word. Hearing ’no’ gets a bit of desensitization when it is used for something unwanted.

2. Make the ‘NO’ one of 3 equally liked choices.

speech therapy, autism, accepting no

Switch the cookie pictures around from day to day just to help your child see that sometimes we run out of their favorites. Keep the empty cookie bag and place a no symbol on it to show that it is not available.

Or do this to help them to learn that variety can be fine. It is easier to choose and see/hear ‘no’ when we like all of the choices.  If needed, take a break for a day and just give your child their favorite cookie.

Caveat: If your child is a picky eater, do not do this with food! Try toys instead.

3. Make the ‘NO’ be the 2nd favorite.

autism, speech therapy, making choices

Making a choice to eat your favorite is easy! This step reinforces that ‘no’ is not always a bad thing. It also gets them ready for the next step.

4. Make the ‘NO’  be their favorite choice.

handling no, autism, parent tips

But be sure the 2nd favorite is a choice. It also helps to have an empty chocolate chip cookie bag available for the child to see that there are no cookies in it. This can make settling for 2nd choice easier.

5. Build sabotage into your daily routines!

Change things up on occasion:

  • The crayon box can be empty, so kids have to choose from markers or colored pencils instead.
  • The Lego basket is empty, so they have to choose a different building toy instead.
  • The box of their favorite cereal is empty, so they have to eat something different.
  • Their favorite shirt is in the washing machine, so a different choice needs to be made.

You get the idea! Learning that there are changes and new choices to be made in life is tough learning for little ones, especially anxious little ones! But by presenting it in a way where there are positive outcomes as well as negative
ones, many children can start to take it in better stride.  No miracles, just slow, hard work.

Some little ones, especially kids on the autism spectrum deal with so much anxiety and have so many specific preferences that this method won’t work on its own. Talk to your child’s team, then, to get a broader approach that is specific to your child.

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I’m Linda, an SLP who loves helping you build effective communication skills for your students using strategies and visuals. Pictures are time consuming, so let me make your life easier!

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