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  • Writer's pictureShayna Gavin, Splash Principal Physiotherapist

Do we use distraction? Or engagement?

What's the difference between distraction and engagement? Why does the difference matter? How is it related to how we learn?

What's the difference between distraction and engagement?


Distraction is when you’re giving a child an immunisation on one side, and playing with an exciting toy on the other side.

Baby distracted by play for a vaccination


Engagement is when you’re actively involved in a social interaction, play or sensory activity, or movement.

Child engaged in blowing bubbles outside

Why does the difference between distraction and engagement matter?

We know from neuroscience research, that our brain changes by neuroplasticity as we learn.

To learn, activities need to be active and meaningful.

Active, because we need to be actively involved in the activity to form a new neural pathway in our brains to learn. Meaningful, because if our brains find the neural pathway meaningful and useful, the pathway is kept, and reinforced, for future use.

So what does that mean in physiotherapy sessions?

Our team are skilled at working moment to moment to find the ‘just right challenge’ that will engage the baby, child, or young person they are working with.

We make sure they are as actively involved as possible. Sometimes that means making a choice with their eyes. Sometimes that means using their full power to ride a bike up a hill. Either way, they are actively engaged.

And finally we work hard to make activities meaningful to the individual. You won’t see us doing 2 x 10 repeats of sit to stands. But you might find us making an amazing collage on the wall as a child selects their sticker from the floor, stands up, and choose the perfect place for it on their collage.

In addition:

We need to be in calm and alert states to learn.

Do you learn well when you’re stressed? Or sleepy? Or over excited? Not me! And neither do the babies, children and young people we work with.

Our team are skilled at helping to find a calm and alert state during the session, allowing for some relaxation and excitement thrown in to the mix!

Want to learn more?

NOTE: I have deliberately simplified the science to make a few key points in this article. If this interests you, “The brain that changes itself” by Norman Doidge MD is an entertaining read to get started with, and there is more scientific research than I could read in a lifetime available since research into the brain and neuroplasticity exploded. Happy learning!

Every baby, child and young person is different. We work hard to individualise approaches for each person and family we work with. Please consider if this general advice is of use to you, and consult your physiotherapist for more information.

Shayna Gavin is a physiotherapist who is passionate about helping babies, children and young people learn functional skills so they can participate in life at home, school and in their community. Recognising that children do best in their own environments, she visits homes, schools, and leisure activities from football fields to ballet classes. She also has daily aquatic physiotherapy sessions available at two private swimming schools in Moonee Ponds and Greensborough, Melbourne. She combines principles of paediatric physiotherapy, Neuro Developmental Treatment / Bobath, motor learning, Sensory Integration and swimming teaching to address the individual needs of each child and their family. She loves providing professional development to physiotherapists, allied health and education professionals, allied health assistants and swimming teachers.

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