Redirecting Behavior: How to Deal with Challenging Behavior

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Sometimes young children may display challenging behavior, such as tantrums or not following directions, when they are upset about something or don’t know how to express their feelings. Caregivers and teachers play an important role in helping children learn how to cope with and manage their big emotions and impulses, and express themselves in positive ways. Redirecting behavior is one strategy to use to stop a challenging behavior from escalating. While it may take some time and patience to redirect behavior effectively, it’s a valuable skill for all caregivers, educators and parents to have.

What is redirecting behavior?

Redirecting behavior is a technique that involves changing the focus of a child’s attention from an undesirable behavior to a more positive one. It interrupts and redirects a child’s behavior to avoid conflict, acting out, or calming them down. With redirecting, the caregiver is still in control, but the child feels like they are too. This helps the child feel more secure, making them less likely to continue the negative behavior.

Redirecting behavior should be used when the child is engaging in a behavior that is:

  • Inappropriate
  • Harmful
  • Disruptive
  • Unsafe
  • Destructive

Redirecting will look different based on the situation and the child’s age. However, it acknowledges the child’s feelings, gives them choices, and helps them find a more constructive way to express themselves.

How to redirect children’s behavior

  • Give them a choice
    • Giving children a choice gives them a sense of value and also helps build their confidence. For example, instead of saying, “Don’t hit your friend,” you could say, “Do you want to hit the pillow or scream into this stuffed animal?”
  • Ignore the behavior
    • For children seeking attention, sometimes the best thing you do is to ignore it. If the child acts out for attention, they will eventually stop if they are not getting the desired reaction. After ignoring them, give positive attention when the child behaves appropriately.
  • Use a distraction
    • If you can’t ignore the behavior, distract the child with something else. For example, offer them a toy to hold instead. If a child is shouting or screaming, lower your voice and ask them gently what the problem is.
  • Redirect their energy
    • If the child is acting out because they have too much energy, redirect it into positive activities. For example, if they are running around the house, ask them to run around outside instead.
  • Give them a hug
    • Sometimes a child needs physical affection to feel better. For example, if they are acting out of anger or frustration, hug them and let them know you’re there for them. Your love and support will help calm them down.
  • Set clear expectations
    • If the child doesn’t know what is expected of them, they are more likely to misbehave. Set clear expectations from the onset and stick to them. They should learn the consequences if they don’t follow the expectations.
  • Use positive reinforcement
    • When the child exhibits good behavior, fortify it with positive reinforcement such as praise, rewards, or privileges. Positive reinforcement can encourage things like sharing or following directions.
  • Avoid power struggles
    • Arguing with a child is usually unproductive and often escalates a situation. If the child is misbehaving because they want to control, engaging in a power struggle will only give them what they want. Be calm, control yourself, and avoid getting into a shouting match with the child.
  • Don’t take it personally
    • Remember that challenging behavior is not personal. The child is not doing it to spite you or to be difficult. They are still learning how to manage their emotions and navigate their feelings.

Redirecting challenging behavior helps children learn to control their emotions and impulses, develop coping skills for dealing with stressful situations, build positive relationships with others, and become more successful in school and life. With patience, creativity, and a willingness to try different techniques, you can turn negative actions into positive behavior.

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