The Art of Redirection

Redirection – An ABA behavior reduction technique used to distract the child from a problem behavior, or lead them to engage in a more appropriate behavior than the one they are currently engaging in. Redirection isn’t intended to replace the need for a FBA  and Behavior Plan to extinguish a problem behavior.

I have stated previously on my blog that ABA therapists are not magicians and we don’t carry magic wands, but there is one thing that ABA therapists have in common with magicians: When we are doing our REALLY well, an onlooker has no idea what we just did. :-)

Redirection is a technique that most educators, therapists, and caregivers know all about. Great teachers and great ABA therapists are masters at the art of redirection. When done correctly, to the naked eye it isn’t clear that the therapist is using redirection and it sometimes might not be clear what the inappropriate behavior was.  Particularly if the therapist has known the child for some time, they are already aware of triggers or cues that precede problem behaviors and they move with precision timing to get the child engaged in something else that is more appropriate.
 It’s always easier to prevent a problem behavior than to react to one. So many times, parents will ask me “What do I do when my son/daughter does (problem behavior)?”, and my response to that is why wait until they are already engaged in the behavior?? Change your mindset about problem behaviors, and start focusing on how to prevent them before they even kick off.

Let’s make this more everyday and less clinical: You have been waiting all day for an important phone call, so you decide to relax a bit in the meantime. You have a steaming bubble bath ready to go in your candle lit bathroom. Which of the following scenarios would be more frustrating and/or annoying:

1) You step into the nice, warm bubble bath and sigh happily. Then the phone rings, and you have to get out of the tub to go answer it.
2) Before you can step into the nice, warm bubble bath the phone rings. You head towards the living room to answer the phone.

See the difference? It is more difficult to stop a problem behavior and redirect a child to a new behavior, because the behavior is already happening. From the child’s point of view, the problem behavior could be just as enjoyable (if not more enjoyable) than a warm bubble bath, and our therapist voice saying “Do NOT climb that!” is like the shrill, ringing telephone making them get out of the bathtub.

When done artfully, redirection is a way to distract the child from the problem behavior they want to engage in, remind the child they can make better choices, or present alternative ways to meet the same function of the problem behavior. I have seen some really creative ways to redirect, both in homes and in classrooms. Successful redirection requires consistently being 1 step ahead of the child. It requires putting on the eagle “therapist” eyes, scanning the environment for any behavioral triggers, and keeping a close eye on the child’s affect and mood particularly in new social situations, during transitions, and during downtimes.

I have also seen redirection done poorly. That usually looks something like a teacher or therapist who notices the child is engaged in a problem behavior, and then may say something like “Get down” or “Stop running”. The first issue is the therapist wasn’t attending to the child properly, and allowed the child to begin engaging in the problem behavior. The second issue is the therapist gives a “Stop” statement instead of a “Go” statement, so now the child is given the power to decide what replacement behavior to use. Most of the time, it wont be anything appropriate. I’m sure many teachers can relate to telling a child running down the hallway to “stop running” so then the child begins to skip…..or walk quickly…….or gallop. This is why “Go” statements are preferred, where the therapist or teacher tells the child what the replacement behavior should be (e.g. “Show me walking feet please”).

 The better you know the child, the easier it will be to redirect them successfully because you will know their interests and likes/dislikes. When I see the masters of redirection at work, there are certain things they do and don’t do that cause their redirection technique to be so successful. 

Wishing I would tell you what those things are?

Your wish is granted!

  • It’s good use of ABA methodology to always reinforce the redirection. The redirected item or activity is always something more appropriate than what the child was currently doing, or was about to do, so we would like the child to engage in the redirected behavior again in the future. Lets say a child is inappropriate when meeting new adults and just lunges into peoples personal space because it gets a big attention response. Redirect that problem behavior into a cool dance move. Teach the child to greet a new adult and then show off their cool dance move. Then be sure to reinforce the redirected behavior (the dance move) with applause and tons of praise (tell the new adult to clap with you!) so that the more appropriate behavior will be reinforced and continue to happen.
  • Try to redirect to something similar. I like to explain this by saying don’t take away an orange, and give a shoe. If you need to take an orange, give an apple. If your client enjoys visually stimming with mirrors by staring at mirrors and laughing hysterically, or putting his face directly against the glass, don’t take that behavior away by saying “Let’s go play with some blocks”. You just took away an orange, and handed the child a shoe. Pick a redirection behavior that is similar to the problem behavior, but more appropriate. In this example you could stand between the child and the mirror and hold out a pinwheel and a kaleidoscope. Tell the child to choose one to play with, and then reinforce their choice. Prompt the child to hold the toy close to their eyes, stare at the toy, and show them how to move the toy to make it visually exciting.
  • If you are trying to redirect the child to an activity, try hopping into the activity with the child. This is something I see many parents do who are amazing at redirection. If their child is being crabby and aggressive with their siblings while playing a board game, the parent will join the game and change the way it is being played.  Instead of the parent stopping the play, they will join the children and suggest a new game, or make up crazy rules that get everyone laughing and competing to think up the silliest way to play the game. Remember, redirection can sometimes be as simple as distracting the child out of the problem behavior.
  • Be quick on the draw! I dare any cowboy from an old black and white western to be quicker on the draw than an excellent ABA therapist. When redirection is an art, it happens so quickly that if you blink you might miss it. I have observed therapists prevent a child from aggressing at a peer with songs, one step instructions, or by asking questions. I have observed therapists redirect a tantrum into a silly dance, or an imitation game. Arrived to a home for a session and the child is clinging to Mom and wants no part of you or your therapy? Tell the child to race you to the therapy room, and have Mom give the countdown (Ready…Set…Go!). Let the child win, and then give them a reward for winning 1st place in the race, as you walk them to the therapy table.


  1. Thank you for this.

  2. Would you consider this a positive punishment strategy if the behavior decreases? Or a different category?

    1. You are correct, if the intervention causes a decrease in the target behavior then the intervention was a punishment.


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