The Distraction Method to Instill Discipline in Children

· January 31, 2019
The distraction method is easy to apply in children. Discover how to apply it and its benefits in our interesting article!

The distraction method is usually a good behavioral management tool, especially in young children. Diverting a young child’s interest and attention can help you avoid situations that could lead to unwanted behavior.

Distraction is an effective strategy when parents believe that their child’s behavior may be problematic. For example, it’s useful when children become irritable, when they’ve been sitting still for a long time, or when they’re doing an activity that is difficult for them.

The distraction method is easy to apply. In fact, you may only need to point out something interesting or peculiar, start a simple game that boosts concentration, or play with simple objects. Basically, you can choose anything that will distract and entertain a child. It’s all about preventing or putting a stop to a possible maladaptive behavior.

Keys to applying the distraction method

As we mentioned above, applying the distraction method is quite simple, especially if we bear in mind that children’s behavior is usually guided by what happens around them. Their prefrontal lobe isn’t fully developed yet, which means they still can’t control their attention as adults can. And this is something you can take advantage of.

In order to do it, consider the following aspects:

  • The child should have an alternative to the activity or stimuli that can trigger unwanted behavior. Present a new activity, toy, or game or even teach them something new they can do with the toy they already have. Be creative!
  • Change the scene. Take them to a place they usually don’t go to. You can also take them to a place they’ve never been before so they get a new perspective.
  • Make sure to prepare a series of resources for the moments where getting new distraction stimuli becomes difficult.

Now let’s say you’re working with older kids with behavioral issues. In that case, you can use other strategies such as:

  • Change the subject of conversation.
  • Suggest a simple game or activity. Make sure it’s interesting enough to get the child’s attention.
  • Propose different alternative activities that the child can carry out when they’re feeling overwhelmed or blocked. Make sure the activities help them get out of that frustrating situation.
A mother talking to her son.

Distraction and redirection

The distraction method is a corrective method related to redirection. Redirection involves focusing the child’s attention on harmless activity or stimuli.

Indirectly, distraction suggests revaluing activities that interest us to use them as a source of good behavior. With them, we can reward the child and strengthen their self-esteem. In other words, we put the child in contexts where it’s easy for them to obtain reinforcement.

Beware of reinforcing negative behaviors with distraction

There’s something we must all bear in mind if we want to use the distraction method to discipline children. If you propose a fun, rewarding activity after the child has hurt someone or had a tantrum, what you’re doing is unintendedly rewarding that behavior. It’s better to use the distraction method to anticipate a bad behavior. That way, you’ll have more alternatives.

Also, consider that the distraction method isn’t appropriate for every case. For example, there may come a time when you don’t want to put an end to a tantrum so that the child learns that they were in the wrong. Thus, it’s vital that you evaluate the use you’ll be giving this method before applying it.

In this sense, the ideal thing to do is intelligently combine different educational and disciplinary strategies. This will ensure your intervention is fruitful no matter the context. Be knowledgeable about it: the more discipline tools you know, the better. In fact, the more you depend on a disciplinary method, the less effective it becomes.

Moreover, pay close attention to the child’s reaction when you use the distraction method. Also, don’t forget to be as consistent as possible in its application. Remember to be flexible and apply another method if this one doesn’t work as expected.

A man using the distraction method with a little girl.

The distraction method as an alternative to physical punishment

E. Gershoff published a study in 2010 where he explained that a lot of the research on discipline to date was focused mainly on parents’ use of physical punishment. The most likely reason for this is that physical punishment is a very controversial way of disciplining children.

However, physical punishment is one of the many disciplinary techniques that parents use to try to eradicate their children’s negative behavior and, in turn, encourage positive behavior. By this, we’re not saying that every parent in the world resorts to physical punishment. While many parents use it on a daily basis, others are completely against it.

Furthermore, a 2007 study analyzed 10 different disciplinary tactics commonly used by parents. It yielded unexpected results. Physical punishment was, in fact, one of the three less common techniques used by parents of preschool children. The most common were controlling child behavior, talking with the child, distraction, and modeling.

Gershoff, E. T. (2010). More harm than good: A summary of scientific research on the intended and unintended effects of corporal punishment on children. Law and Contemporary Problems. https://doi.org/10.1525/sp.2007.54.1.23.