Challenging Behavior: Using a Preferred Item as a Distracter

When you can sense that a child is about to display disruptive or challenging behavior, using a preferred item as a distracter is an intervention strategy that consists of presenting an activity or a favorite toy to a child during a time when challenging behavior is apt to occur. This preferred item is intended to distract the child from the conditions that are liable to provoke challenging behavior.

Who Benefits?

By using a preferred item as a distracter, it is useful for a child who engages in challenging behavior as a way to escape or avoid a task, and obtain or maintain the child’s attention. This strategy should only be employed when the child does not actively need to be cognitively engaged during the entirety of a given activity.

How To Implement This Strategy

To begin, the parent or guardian of the child receiving the intervention needs to identify the preferred items or activities that can serve as distracters. Next, identify the likely time or activity that will provoke challenging behavior so you can then match a distracter for that setting.

Following that, the preferred item or activity should be delivered before the challenging behavior begins to arise. It should not be given after an episode of challenging behavior because the child may then link his or her disruptive behavior to receiving the preferred item or activity.

Practical Approaches

Below are several examples in which you can see this intervention strategy applied, the behavior that is displayed and any adjustments or modifications that may be needed:

  • Example: Each day the children in Thomas’s kindergarten class must wait in line by the lunch counter until it is their turn to be served.
    • Behavior: To escape standing in line, Thomas hits and pokes other children.
    • Strategy: Thomas’s teacher knows that he likes to be a helper, so she has assigned him the job of holding her clipboard and checking to make sure that everyone has their jacket to go outside for recess.
    • Implementation: Before leaving the classroom to go to lunch, Thomas’s teacher explains that he will be the helper today to make sure everyone has their jacket to go outside. She will explain that holding the clipboard is contingent upon Thomas waiting in line with the other children without hitting or pinching.
    • Adjustments & Modifications: If Thomas completes checking off all of the names before lunch is ready to be served, another distracter should be in place to be given before the onset of challenging behavior. In this example, when the teacher sees that Thomas is nearing completion of the task she could prompt him to hand out small stickers to each student for remembering their jacket or another small task could be assigned to distract Thomas from his challenging behavior.
  • Example: Maggie’s teacher announces that it is circle time.
    • Behavior: Maggie begins running around the room whenever it is circle time and refuses to join the group.
    • Strategy: Maggie’s teacher has allowed Maggie to bring her favorite stuffed animal to school to be her “circle time friend.”
    • Implementation: Maggie’s teacher has explained that she is only allowed to have the stuffed animal out for circle time and the stuffed dog sits next to her as long as Maggie sits and participates in the circle time activities. The dog is in a special place in the classroom and when the teacher announces circle time it is Maggie’s job to get her dog and bring him to the circle time area. A special chair is available for him.
    • Adjustments & Modifications: If Maggie becomes disinterested in the stuffed animal, other distracters can be used. If Maggie enjoys being a helper she could also begin to have a special job during circle time to maintain her interest.
  • Example: During small group time Seth’s teacher works with 3 or 4 preschoolers at one time and sometimes her attention is drawn away from Seth.
    • Behavior: During this time, whenever the teacher’s attention is drawn away from Seth by another student, Seth calls out, “Help me!” This behavior sometimes escalates to Seth throwing his materials on the floor and refusing to participate.
    • Strategy: Seth loves stickers and has many books of stickers that he has collected. Seth has been allowed to bring a sticker book to small group time and when he reaches a place in an activity where he needs help and the teacher is busy helping another student, Seth is allowed to place stickers in his book until the teacher is available to assist him.
    • Implementation: Seth’s teacher explained to him before small group time that he would be allowed to place stickers in his book whenever she needed to work with another student and Seth needed help. When she is able to shift attention back to him he puts the stickers away and refocuses on the activity.
    • Adjustments & Modifications: If Seth loses interest in stickers, another distracter can be employed. Prompts should be delivered to Seth to work on his sticker book before the teacher diverts her attention to another student and before the challenging behavior occurs.

For more information, please visit CEED:

Adapted with permission of the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) at CEHD UMN.

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