Use Constructive Redirection to Improve Relationships

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA
[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on 10/21/21. It was also published in the Randolph Herald, Canton Journal, Stoughton Journal, and Holbrook Sun on 11/10/21, and in the Braintree Forum, Hingham Journal, Marshfield Mariner, Scituate Mariner, and Weymouth News on 11/11/21.]

If you want to build a solid relationship with individuals who have Intellectual Disabilities (ID), it’s a good idea to learn how to provide redirection that is constructive and meaningful. Although it may sometimes be necessary to tell them “no” or ask them to “sit down,” using these words on a regular basis can be damaging and counterproductive. Learning how to creatively and effectively redirect someone when needed, on the other hand, can reduce problem behaviors, improve relationships, and result in a “win-win” situation. This is constructive redirection.

Think about how angry people get when their travel plans are disrupted. Imagine if a hotel manager told you, “No, we can’t find a room for you tonight,” or “You will have to sit down and wait because your room won’t be ready for at least three hours.” You might become annoyed or downright angry if you didn’t receive options or at least a good-faith effort to rectify the situation. For most of us, a frustrating experience like this happens only occasionally. Unfortunately, for individuals with ID, frustrating experiences may happen quite regularly.

For example, sitting down to eat a meal might be one of the high points of the day for a person with ID. Because they are eager for mealtime, they might repeatedly ask if it’s time to eat yet. If they are often told, “Sit down – it’s not time yet,” they may feel unheard, become frustrated, start to get agitated, and/or engage in problem behaviors.

Sometimes these individuals need encouragement and support when they have to wait for something or when it’s necessary to deny their request. Caregivers can help individuals cope by encouraging them to focus their attention on something else they enjoy. What activities would be productive, fun, and safe for them while they wait? How about holding a dance party, working on skill-building activities, or playing a board game? Be creative and be sure to ask them what they would like to do.

The work of caregivers is challenging because they teach people with ID how to be responsible for their emotions and develop skills that will broaden and increase their independence. If the individuals have a number of fun activities to choose from, redirecting them will be easier for the caregivers, and they won’t have to default to saying, “No. Sit down.”

When working with individuals with ID, it is important to have a “Plan B” if attempts to meaningfully engage in an activity are not working. Some individuals may need additional support to make requests and occupy their time in ways that are socially acceptable and safe. Having a plan makes it more likely that everyone who supports the person will have the same expectations and provide feedback that is therapeutic and consistent.
Working with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) or other qualified mental health professional can be very helpful because they can help the team figure out what skills need to be targeted for the individual to be successful. They can also help when the plan isn’t working by helping the team revise the plan and determine if more training or additional resources are needed. 

When developing rapport with individuals with ID, let them lead the way. If they have activities they like and find rewarding, they are less likely to engage in challenging behavior to get their needs met. Sometimes saying “no” is necessary, but it is far more rewarding for both caregivers and individuals with ID when they work together to develop interests and engage in activities that are productive and fun. 

Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Director of Clinical Services for the May Center for Adult Services in Western Massachusetts. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 262) or at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit