I’m hoping you’ve spent enough time in your life observing water to understand the following analogy (and if you work much with preschoolers, I’m sure that you have). Imagine water running down a slight decline. It’s spreading and gaining speed, and headed right for , say, your favorite book. Destruction is imminent. And so you yell, “Stop! Water, stop! For goodness sake, STOP!” Does it work? Of course not. There’s too much momentum already at play. You try to stop it artificially by creating a dam. That seems to work for a moment, but soon the water rises, until it overflows and heads right for your treasured tome once again. Then you have an idea. A brilliant idea, by the way. You divert the water by digging a quick ditch, taking it in another direction. You redirect the water to a thirsty flower bed and both your book and the flowers are saved. You really are amazing, you know! Now, why did I tell you a random story about water? I hope that will soon be clear!
I want you to imagine now, a child whose behavior is undesirable, or inappropriate, or threatening certain destruction to person, property, or yes, even your favorite book. As I mentioned in last week’s post, it isn’t enough to say “Stop”. We have to describe the behavior we want. That may mean describing appropriate behavior, as we discussed last week. Sometimes, what is required is to redirect the behavior. Just as in the water example, there’s already momentum in the action, there’s already a need the child is trying to fill; the need to jump, the need to climb, the need to color. As we redirect, we move the momentum from an inappropriate or destructive direction into an appropriate, constructive direction. For example, moving from jumping off the tables into jumping off safe structures at the playground; from climbing up the bookshelves to climbing up a step ladder or climbing toy; from coloring on the wall to coloring at an easel.
When we notice a child with an inappropriate behavior, simply trying to stop them is sometimes as hard as simply stopping running water. The need to act needs to be met and can often be done so in an appropriate way. We first look at the action, determine the need, determine which parts of the action are acceptable and which parts are not, and try to funnel the action into a more appropriate direction.
Sometimes we redirect individual behaviors as they arise. A child is cutting clothing or hair or books, so we take her to some paper or playdough or yarn that she can cut. A boy is frustrating and acting out by being a bit pushy and aggressive. We may move him over to work with some playdough where he can beat and knead the dough into submission, and no one gets hurt!
Sometimes we need to do some long-term redirection. We may redirect a need we frequently see in a child’s personality into a positive outlet that is always available. For example, some children are thrill-seekers by nature. For these children, we may not wait until the child presents a dangerous, thrill-seeking behavior to intervene with a redirection. We may find an ongoing way to meet the need for excitement. That may be through more rough-and-tumble play, providing playground equipment or other safe equipment in a specified area for the child to explore and be adventurous, or by providing more experiences exploring nature and the outdoors.
Another child may consistently be writing on the walls or furniture. We may redirect each time, but we may also find that we need to create an art area for this child where (washable) supplies are accessible whenever the child wants them. Maybe an easel or personal clipboard with ample paper could be provided. Perhaps a chair rail can be installed in a certain room and the bottom half of the wall actually can be drawn on – either permanently or with chalk on a blackboard-painted surface.
Some children need more movement and are more wiggly at circle time. We may take this into account and redirect that energy into more music and movement activities woven into our circle time.
By redirecting behaviors, we are validating the need the child is trying to fill, but teaching the child how to do that in an appropriate way. With time and proper coaching, the child will learn to make that appropriate choice on his own without our help. That goes much further toward teaching self-control than simply yelling, “Stop”.
So pay attention this week as your children present difficult behaviors. Could they possibly be trying to meet a need that could be redirected and met in a more appropriate way? Try it out, and let us know how it works for you here!
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Top photo by AD-Passion.