Using distraction to encourage positive behaviour
Distraction means shifting your child’s attention away from something that’s frustrating or boring to something more engaging or interesting.
You can use distraction when children are likely to behave in challenging ways. For example, this might be when they:
- 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 encouraging positive behaviour in many situations.
Tips for distracting children and encouraging positive behaviour
Here are distraction tips that usually work for children of all ages:
- Tune in to your child’s behaviour, and try distracting your child when you first notice them getting frustrated, bored or cranky.
- Give your child something else to do. Introduce a new activity, toy or game, or show your child something new they can do with the toy they already have.
- Change the scene. Put your child where they can see different things, or move your child 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 your child is 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 toys or books that you can pull out when you need them.
For older children, you can try these ideas as well as the tips above:
- Change the topic of conversation.
- Suggest a simple game or activity. For example, suggest your child tries 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?’
- Suggest your child does something they usually enjoy, like reading their favourite book or listening to some music.
If you sense that your child is bored and needs distraction, why not encourage your child to come up with their own ideas? Making the most of boredom can be great for your child’s creativity and problem-solving skills.
When not to use distraction to change children’s behaviour
Distraction works best when you can see that your child is about to get upset or behave in a challenging way.
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 quiet time or time-out, if your child is old enough to understand these consequences.
Also, trying to distract your child when they’re having a tantrum might send the message that your child’s strong feelings aren’t important. Instead you can use time in to help toddlers calm down or our steps for helping older children calm down.
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 they can play with or what TV show they can watch, and for how long.