Executive Functioning Development-Impulse Control Practice

Impulse control has nothing to do with knowing the rules nor the recognition of the consequences for breaking them. Many children with challenging behaviors can tell you all about the rules and why their behavior was inappropriate. The knowledge doesn’t help them.  Children with impulse control issues have not developed the skills to tolerate frustration, inhibit action, or adapt behavior to the environment to the extent needed in more open and less controlled environments.  "In the hurly-burly of classroom give-and-take, children often go on automatic pilot and act impulsively. They do what they’ve always done, and if they’ve behaved aggressively in the past, then aggressive behavior just reappears." (Slaby, 1995).  impulsivity for young children, according to Ronald G. Slaby and his colleagues (1995), occurs for several reasons:

  • They have trouble regulating their emotions and often allow emotions to dictate actions.
  • They don’t listen carefully and don't pick up on non-verbal communication signals.
  • If they have verbal skills that could help them to stop and think, they may not use them.
  • It doesn’t occur to them to consider what else they could do or what will happen if they respond aggressively. To them, passive or aggressive solutions seem perfectly all right.

Feelings, encountered in the heat of the moment,  initiate a response to action for children with impulse issues and it's the recognition of these feelings that is the cornerstone for addressing impulse control issues.  Learning the relationship between feelings and actions is one of the keys to developing impulse control.  When a child learns to recognize that he’s feeling angry or frustrated, he can also learn that having that feeling is a signal to stop and think—not a signal to act.

To help a child recognize and process feelings an adult must intervene when signs of anger, frustration, or agitation arise.  Interventions can range from removal of the child from the environment and discuss what the child is feeling to the provision of a trigger word or phrase such as "red light" to initiate the process of stop, look, and listen before acting.

“Self-speak” or verbal mediation is another activity that can help initiate a "controlled" response. The child thinks out loud to guide his own behavior. Several  social skills programs teach children to remind themselves aloud to “stop, look, and listen” when they realize they’re becoming angry, frustrated, or experiencing other feelings that initiate an immediate and uncontrolled response. Adults can help by modeling this method, making the usually hidden process of reasoning more apparent to all the children.

Practice these techniques with children when they’re composed and in control, and rehearse them in closed, one-to-one settings before trying them in real life. Provide lots of cues, prompts, and reinforcement when children are using them with their peers.

Listed below are some other suggestions which will strengthen your child’s development of inhibition skills. 


Attempt these ideas when your child is calm and in a pleasant mood. Focus on one idea at a time. As with any new skill to be learned, you and your child will need to practice over a period of time for best results.  Be patient with your child and yourself.

1) Play “Red Light, Green Light” with your child and a group of friends. (How to play: A leader stands with his back to a group who are a short distance away.  When the leader calls “Green Light,” the children in the group begin to run toward the leader.  At any moment, the leader may turn around, face the group and call “Red Light.”  The children who are running must “freeze” in place until the leader turns back around and calls, “Green Light.”  Anyone seen moving after the “Red Light” signal has been called must return to the starting place.  The game continues until one child taps the leader on the shoulder while her back is turned.)


2) Arrange a signal with your child to use when you notice impulsive behavior - touching, badgering, interrupting etc.   If your child inhibits the behavior upon hearing the word, reward them.  The signal can be a verbal or visual cue.

3) Be sure to make eye contact with your child when giving directions or commands and that they are truly processing what you are saying.

4) Plan ahead when away from home to help a child feel more in control.   Small hand-held computer games, mechanical drawing toys, crayons, notebooks, pencils are some possible ideas.  Take along the materials that you know your child enjoys for diversion.

5) Teach your child not to interrupt.  An example:  Before you get on the phone, give your child a two-part command. Give him something to do (not a chore) and tell him not to bother you. After talking for about one minute, go to your child, and praise him for not interrupting. Remind him to stay with the task and not to bother you.  Return to your phone call, wait two minutes and repeat the cycle.  Gradually lengthen your time on the phone, before pausing and going to give your child praise and a reminder. When trying this idea initially, it will work best if the phone call is 5 to 8 minutes long. As soon as you hang up the phone, give your child special praise for letting you complete the task. This idea can be used with other tasks as well, such as when you are talking to another adult, preparing a meal, working on the computer, or reading.

6) When assigning tasks, like chores or homework, give your child some external reference to the time period allowed.  For instance, if your child is given 20 minutes to clean up her room, you will need to set a cooking timer for 20 minutes, place it where it will be visible and draw his attention to it.

7) To improve working memory (the ability to keep in mind information necessary to complete a task), place important information in a physical form at the point where the work has to be done.  If your child has homework to do at the kitchen table, place before him a card listing important rules and reminders, such as, “Stay on task, read directions twice, and ask for help if you need it.”

8) To help your child boost internal motivation to stay with work that is boring, tedious, and protracted, give your child external motivation in the form of an incentive or reward.   This incentive can be an offer to let the child have something he wants when the work is done (special snack) or to have a privilege he enjoys (extra TV or video time) or to save up points for a larger future privilege.

9) Make thinking and problem solving more physical.  Using a computer, index cards, little pictures or symbols to formulate ideas for an essay are examples.  Every thought gets captured rather than being lost to forgetfulness and the child can then expand on and play around with the ideas in a physical form.  This may be the most difficult type of information to externalize, but it seems particularly effective with schoolwork.

10) Prepare in advance for potential problem situations, such as in a store or restaurant.  Try these five simple steps before entering the site:

A) Stop just before entering.

B) Review with your child two or three rules for behavior (“Stay next to me, don’t ask for anything, and do as I say.”) Have child repeat rules to you.

C) Set up reward or incentive child can earn for obeying rules (stopping for ice cream on the way home, for example).

D) Explain the punishment that may have to be used, such as loss of privilege.

E) Follow your plan as you enter the situation.  Give your child immediate and frequent feedback, and act swiftly with consequences for any acts that violate the rules.

Adapted from Russell A. Barkley’s book Taking Charge of ADHD (Revised Edition), 
The Guilford Press, 2000.

With awareness and practice, children can learn to improve skills related to self-control. Parents can play an active role.  Active and consistent coaching from caring adults can lead to improved impulse behaviors, delayed gratification, greater critical thinking skills, and improved creativity.

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