Seven Strategies to Influence a Student’s Choices

By Tim Elmore



A college dean recently acknowledged to me an obvious truth. He said, “The older I get, the more different students become.”


He said this, tongue firmly planted in cheek, but I knew exactly what he meant. The generation gap, a term first coined by magazine editor John Poppy back in the 1960s, is more real today than ever. This college dean was admitting kids didn’t feel so different when he first started his career, but as he aged, chrono-centrism set in. We get stuck in our life station’s viewpoint and find it increasingly challenging to connect with a young person, much less influence them


The secret is to understand how to “nudge.”


So many decisions, attitudes, and behaviors are influenced by simple “nudges” from others. In other words, young people don’t think deeply about most of the choices they make. They’re influenced by social nudges. For example, during the pandemic, chewing gum manufacturers noticed a 20 percent drop in sales. That’s measurable. A $20 million gum company saw sales drop by $4 million! Did people choose to stop buying gum over the last two years? Probably not. The change was likely because most people buy gum as they check out at a grocery store or drug store. When we were quarantined, we visited those stores less. Seeing gum on the shelf, right next to the candy bars, was no longer a factor.


There was no nudge.


What’s It Mean to Nudge Young People?

Years ago, I read the book, Nudge, by economist Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. In Nudge, the authors propose a series of reforms—“nudges”—that enable us to help people make better choices without restricting their freedom to choose. This is especially true as we lead young people. The book’s premise is that no choice is ever neutral because the way it is presented, even if randomly, affects the way people engage with it—and so schools, governments, companies, and leaders should frame options in ways that can improve young people’s decisions. 


We must keep in mind that our goal should not be to control, but to connect. Students must learn to “own” their choices and develop an internal locus of control. So, nudging them is not about imposing a behavior. Thaler and Sunstein call their approach to designing choices “libertarian paternalism,” which implies the freedom of libertarianism combined with the good will of paternalism.

  • This means you are intentional about your guidance and messaging. 
  • This also means you are laissez-faire about allowing them to choose. 


Seven Ideas to Nudge Students

Below are a handful of ideas I’ve learned since I began teaching students in 1979. While generations change, the core of behavioral science is fairly timeless. Check these ideas out.

  • Make a good choice visible. 

Remember the chewing gum nudge? Products that store managers want to push are placed at eye level. One teacher placed a “countdown clock to finals” near the door. How could you position your key messages you want students to make in a visible spot to remind them? 

  • Build a relationship beyond their work or study. 

We can forget the influence we build with a student when we show interest in them beyond the subject we teach or their work assignment. Why not cultivate personal connections with them and watch how deeper relationships and empathy nudge them into positive conduct? 

  • Influence their influencers.

Almost every student follows others more influential than them. Could you identify those influencers (even on social media) and indirectly influence your young by nudging them? I did this with some of my kids’ influencers and it paid off big-time in their choices. 

  • Anticipate mistakes.

I know a dad and daughter who agreed on a curfew time, but she kept losing track of the time. He got into the habit of calling her a few minutes before the curfew and hanging up. Anticipating her habits, he kept her on track with a nudge. This can cultivate new habits. 

  • Narrow the options. 

A vendor tested a theory in front of a store. He set up two tables with similar products: one had thirty options, the other just three. He found more people visited the table with wider options but more bought from the table with less. Fewer options nudge kids to make decisions. 

  • Leverage social media humor.  

Social media platforms are a natural habitat for students. And they prefer funny posts. What if you utilized humor in your key messaging and watched those ideas get views and shares? Go where they are. This is nudging at its best for today’s emerging generation. 

  • Offer incentives. 

Humans are notorious for responding to incentives—little perks that make a choice easier. I’m not talking about bribery, but why not offer an incentive or two that make choosing well easier to do? One teacher offers bonus coupons in class for right choices. I know a mom who paid her 12-year-old son $1,800 to stay off social media till he turned 18. He did.


Call it a nudge. Influence deepens and energy shifts as we find ways to nudge choices. 



Seven Strategies to Influence a Student’s Choices