Challenging child behavior comes from a variety of causes (you can read more about how to get to the root of those causes here). Because the causes are so varied, we have to have a variety of tools at the ready to help us respond appropriately. Just as Bob Vila carries more than just a hammer in his tool belt for addressing the variety of challenges presented in a home, parents and teachers need more than one tool for responding to behavior.
In my ecourse, Parenting with Positive Guidance, I teach 10+ tools for building positive discipline — the type of discipline that encourages both positive behavior and healthy relationships. Here is an introduction to one of my favorite tools: Redirection.
(Reposted from the archives.)
I’m hoping you’ve spent enough time in your life observing water to understand the following analogy (and if you’re around young children much, 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 in 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, sanity, or yes, even your favorite book. As I mentioned in a previous 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 then. As we do that, 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 meet; the need to jump, the need to climb, the need to color. Simply trying to STOP the behavior often works like the dam in our story: halting the behavior for a moment….until the energy piles up and the behavior overflows again.
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 momentum and energy is already there. The need must be met, not just ignored.
The child just needs to know how those needs can be expressed and met in a more 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 frustrated 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 also 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!
Interested in learning more? Check out the Positive Guidance tools in our resources section!
Sonia Plouffe says
Great article! I love it.
I love your ecourse. This is also a favorite of mine that after your ecourse and with practice, I have gotten a lot better at saying what I want to see 🙂 thanks for revisiting it!
Thank you so much, Andrea! You are so awesome — always good for a pick-me-up! I’m so glad to know you enjoyed and benefited from the ecourse!
This is a huge technique in our family. I feel like we do kids a disservice when we just tell them to ‘stop.’ We confuse them when we tell them to stop jumping on the couch when later we clap our hands when they jump outside in the park.
It’s all about honoring the impulse. Usually we try not to discipline first, but acknowledge the reason behind the action. We even say ‘that’s great you’re jumping’ but follow it up with the appropriate way to do so.
What a great connection, Nina. Thanks so much for sharing!
Great article to share with parents. This is a technique that I use in the Early Childhood Special Edu. setting and with my own kids at home. My favorite professor once said my job as the special education teacher is to “Find the need, meet the need”. I still love this advice and think about it often. No child purposefully tries to be “bad”. Sometimes the tricky part is figuring out how to meet that need in a way that works for the child and feels reasonable for the adults involved too. You are one of my favorite blogs to follow.
Thank you so much, Jen, for your kind words! And I love that mantra, “Find the need, meet the need.” I might have to adopt that as well!