Impulse Control In Children
Today, I’d like to delve into a topic that many of us encounter in our journey as teachers and parents – impulse control or impulsivity in young children. As an SEN teacher, I’ve had the privilege of working with a diverse range of young learners, each with their unique strengths and challenges. One common trait that I’ve observed, particularly in the early years, is impulsivity.
Impulsivity, or the tendency to act on a whim without thinking about the consequences, is a normal part of child development. It’s a sign that a child’s executive functions – the set of cognitive skills that control our thoughts, actions, and emotions – are still maturing. However, when impulsivity starts to interfere with a child’s learning or social relationships, it’s important to address it in a supportive and constructive manner.
How To Help A Child With Impulse Control Issues
Over the years, I’ve gathered a wealth of strategies to help manage impulsivity in the classroom and at home. From creating structured routines to teaching self-regulation skills, there are numerous ways to guide our young learners towards more thoughtful and controlled behavior.
My aim is to provide you with a toolkit of ideas that you can adapt to your own circumstances, whether you’re dealing with a particularly impulsive pupil in the classroom or navigating the ups and downs of parenting at home.
Every child is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. It’s all about finding the right approach that resonates with your child or pupil, and being patient as they learn and grow.
Why do children struggle with impulse control?:
Their brains are still developing. The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control, known as the prefrontal cortex, develop slowly over childhood and adolescence. Young children simply lack the neural maturity to consistently control their impulses. They are emotional creatures. Children experience emotions intensely, and when they feel emotional their rational thinking skills decrease. Their “emotional mind” takes over, making it hard for them to stop and think before acting.
They crave stimulation and excitement. Children have a natural curiosity and desire for stimulation that can drive impulsive behavior as they seek to explore the world around them. Their thinking is still concrete and egocentric. Young children have a hard time seeing things from another’s perspective or understanding the consequences of their actions. This makes it difficult for them to curb impulses that centre around their own needs and desires.
They lack experience. Children have had fewer opportunities to learn from their mistakes and the consequences of poor choices. The part of the brain involved in processing experience and learning from mistakes is still developing. Underlying issues could be present. Conditions like ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder can all contribute to problems with impulse control in children. These require diagnosis and treatment to properly support a child’s development.
Inconsistent parenting or lack of supervision. A chaotic home environment, lack of routine or clear rules, or long periods of time without supervision or guidance can exacerbate impulse control difficulties in children. Consistency, predictability, and actively engaging with your child helps build neural pathways that support the ability to stop and think.
Lack of problem-solving experience. Children need opportunities to work through challenging situations themselves to build problem-solving skills. If they are never allowed to face difficulties or make choices, they won’t learn critical thinking skills that help curb impulsive behaviours. Parents should guide children through the problem-solving process with questions and input rather than always providing the solutions.
6 Ways to Help Your Child with Impulse Control
Developing impulse control in children is an ongoing process that takes time and practice. Their brains are constantly growing and changing, and the parts that help with impulse control and emotional regulation develop gradually. While some children may struggle more than others, there are several things parents can do to help support the development of impulse control.
- Label emotions. Help your child identify the emotions they are feeling by naming them. When a child can put a name to the feeling, it helps them gain awareness and understanding of their emotional experience. This activates the thinking part of their brain, which helps them respond in a less impulsive way. Talk about emotions often, read books together, and use visual aids like feelings charts.
- Give clear directions. When children struggle with impulse control, too much information at once can be overwhelming. Keep your instructions simple and specific. Have your child repeat the directions back to you to ensure they understand. Visual reminders and routines can also help keep them on track.
- Problem-solve together. Help your child think through problems themselves instead of giving them the answers. Ask open-ended questions to prompt their thinking, such as “I wonder what will happen if you do that?” or “What else could you do?” Discuss possible consequences of different options to help them make better choices. Problem-solving together builds confidence and skills they can apply in situations where impulse control is challenging.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps develop focus, cognitive control, and emotional regulation. Engage your child in simple mindfulness activities like deep breathing, sensory exercises, and mindful play. Regular practice of mindfulness, especially during childhood and adolescence, helps build neurological pathways that support impulse control and emotional regulation long-term.
- Play impulse control games. Games that require following rules and stopping on cue, such as Simon Says, Follow the Leader, and Red Light/Green Light help build impulse control in a fun way. These games teach skills like listening, focusing attention, responding appropriately, and inhibiting impulses. Our AAC page has lots of popular games you can play with your child.
- Weighted blankets have been shown to support emotional regulation and the ability of children to be ready to learn. This simple intervention may help the child manage impulsivity at home and in school.
With practice and patience, children can get better at managing their impulses. Providing support through labelling emotions, giving clear directions, problem-solving together, practicing mindfulness, and playing games. NHS Oxford has a great guide on ADHD and impulse control.
Impulse Control Activities for Kids
5 Fun Activities To Help a Child With Impulse Control
Impulse control is an essential skill for children to develop as it helps them manage their behaviors, make thoughtful decisions, and regulate their emotions. Engaging in fun and interactive activities can provide children with opportunities to practice impulse control in an enjoyable way. Here are five activities that can help kids strengthen their impulse control skills:
1. Freeze Dance
Freeze Dance is a fantastic game that promotes both impulse control and listening skills. Play music and encourage children to dance freely. However, when the music suddenly stops, they must freeze in their current position. This activity helps children learn to control their movements and responses.
2. What’s the time Mr Wolf?
How to Play:
- Select one child to be “Mr. Wolf” and have them stand at one end of the room facing away from the other children.
- The other children line up at the opposite end of the room.
- Mr. Wolf calls out “What’s the time Mr. Wolf?”
- The teacher/parent checks the clock/watch and calls out a time like “10 o’clock!”
- The other children then take that many steps towards Mr. Wolf. For example, if it’s 10 o’clock, they each take 10 steps.
- Mr. Wolf continues to ask for the time and the children keep moving slowly closer with each turn.
- If Mr. Wolf thinks the children are getting too close, they can change the time to a higher number to send the children back a few steps.
- The first child to reach Mr. Wolf becomes the new Mr. Wolf for the next round.
- If a child runs to Mr. Wolf instead of walking, they must go back to the start. This reinforces taking turns and waiting patiently.
The goal of the game is for children to learn to control their impulses by walking slowly instead of running to Mr. Wolf. It’s a fun way to practice this important self-control skill.
3. Simon Says
Simon Says is a popular game that helps children practice impulse control and listening skills. Designate one child as “Simon” who gives commands starting with “Simon says.” For example, “Simon says, touch your nose.” The other children must follow the instructions only when “Simon says” is included. Those who follow an instruction without “Simon says” are out. This game encourages children to think before acting.
4. Balloon Volleyball
Balloon Volleyball is a fun and safe game that requires impulse control and coordination. Divide the children into two teams and provide them with a balloon. They must work together to keep the balloon in the air by hitting it back and forth over a string or tape “net.” This game helps children control their impulses to hit the balloon too forcefully and teaches them to take turns.
5. Board Games
Playing board games that involve turn-taking and decision-making can be excellent for developing impulse control skills. Games like Snakes and Ladders, or Uno require children to wait for their turn, follow rules, and make strategic choices. These games provide opportunities for children to practice patience, self-control, and decision-making skills. Our favourites are Jenga, Tumbling Monkeys and The Frustration Game
Common Mistakes Parents & Teachers Make With Impulse Control Strategies:
We are not all perfect and shouldn’t worry about trying to be. When raising little humans with impulse control issues we try our best but may at times inadvertently make mistakes.
- Being inconsistent with rules and consequences. If you don’t follow through with consequences when rules are broken, it teaches your child that the rules don’t really matter. Be consistent and fair with any rules or limits you set.
- Expecting too much too soon. Remember that impulse control develops gradually. Don’t expect a young child to have the impulse control of an older child or adult. Adjust your expectations based on your child’s age and abilities.
- Punishing normal childhood impulses. Not every impulsive act requires punishment or consequence. Choose your battles wisely and understand that impulsiveness is normal for kids. React calmly and help them learn proper responses.
- Failing to model impulse control yourself. Children often mimic their parents’ behaviors. Work to demonstrate strong impulse control through your own words and actions. Stay patient, think before reacting, and model appropriate emotional responses.
- Not giving your child opportunities to make choices. If children never get to make their own decisions, they don’t learn critical thinking skills that support impulse control. Provide opportunities for your child to make choices and experience natural consequences when possible. Help guide them through the decision-making process.
- Doing too much for them instead of helping them problem-solve. While it may be quicker and easier to solve problems for your child, it won’t help them build problem-solving skills that improve impulse control. Step back and prompt your child to think through solutions by asking questions to guide them. Provide help and input only when needed.
- Lacking consistency in schedules and routines. Chaotic schedules and environments can trigger more impulsive behaviours in children. Establish predictable schedules, routines, and rules to provide stability and support your child’s ability to think before acting.
- Not taking time to recognise and understand the underlying issues. If your child’s impulsiveness seems extreme, consider whether any underlying issues are present, such as ADHD, anxiety, or emotional regulation difficulties. Get professional support if needed to help your child develop strategies for improving impulse control.