Using distraction as a behaviour management tool

Distraction is a simple strategy that’s good for situations when behaviour might be a problem. For example, this might be when children:

  • are getting cranky
  • have been sitting still for a long time
  • are having trouble sharing or taking turns with others.

Pointing out something interesting, starting a simple game, pulling funny faces – you’ve probably come up with many tricks like these to distract your child.

Distraction usually works. So it’s a great option for managing your child’s behaviour in many situations.

Tips for distraction

Here are distraction tips that usually work for children of all ages:

  • Give children something else to do. Introduce a new activity, toy or game, or even show children something new they can do with the toy they already have.
  • Change the scene. Put children where they can see different things, or move them to a new spot either inside or outside.
  • Think ahead. Have a few ideas for fun activities. It could be as simple as planning some outside play when you can see that children are getting bored inside.
  • Sing some songs or rhymes together. This can be useful when you can’t stop what you’re doing, like when you’re driving or cooking.
  • If you’re out and about, take some fun toys or books that you can pull out when you need them.

Distraction can work for older children too. Here are some ideas:

  • Change the topic of conversation.
  • Suggest a simple game or activity. For example, suggest your children try a jigsaw or a game of Uno if they say they have nothing to do.
  • Suggest a break when things aren’t going well. For example, you could say, ‘Looks like you’re feeling frustrated with your drawing. What about riding your scooter instead?’

If you sense that your child is bored and needs distraction, why not encourage your child to come up with her own ideas? Making the most of boredom can be great for her creativity and problem-solving skills.

When not to use distraction

Distraction works best when you can see that your child might be about to do something wrong or get upset.

Distraction won’t help if your child:

  • has hurt someone
  • is having a tantrum
  • is very upset.

In situations like these, it’s best to deal with the behaviour directly.

For example, if your child has hurt another child, it might be tempting to distract both children with toys or activities. But this doesn’t help your child understand that it isn’t OK to hurt other people. It might be better to use time-out, as long as your child is old enough to understand this consequence.

Also, trying to distract your child when he’s having a tantrum might send the message that his strong feelings aren’t important. It’s better to handle tantrums by acknowledging your child’s feelings.

It’s easy to suggest screen time as a distraction. If you do this, it’s good to be clear about what you’re letting your child do. For example, be specific about what apps she can play with or what TV show she can watch, and for how long.

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