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Managing Impulsivity in Children: Tips and Tools

Many parents and teachers struggle with excessively impulsive and inattentive children. They wonder if the child is choosing to be oppositional, defiant, and intentionally disobedient, or if the child truly cannot control their behavior. They may even question whether their child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Parents and teachers assume that the child cognitively knows how to make better choices, remembers the rules, and is even aware enough to know that the behavior is inappropriate. However, as adults we may struggle to understand the child’s behaviors and impulsivity because we assume that the child has the tools to manage impulsive behavior.

In this article, we’ll help parents and teachers to identify impulsivity in children, as well as address the probable causes and provide resources to better manage impulsive behavior.

What Causes Impulsive Behavior in Children?

Some level of impulsivity is to be expected in young kids as they grow and gradually learn to control their impulses. However, this impulsive behavior may be excessive, to the point where it is more disruptive in learning and daily life activities and more significant than the typical impulsivity demonstrated at different developmental ages.

Research shows that this “excessive impulsivity” is likely a neurological issue and not closely associated with intent. However, some adults may be unaware of underlying neurological challenges, and may assume that an impulsive child is intentionally acting that way, and can control their behaviors as a choice.

Signs of Impulsivity in Kids

To effectively reduce and manage impulse control in children, caregivers and educators need to identify triggers and when their behavior is disruptive.

Some examples of excessively impulsive behavior include:

Once identified, there are several ways in which a child may be supported to manage their symptoms.

How to Manage Impulsive Behavior in Children

Some parents immediately turn to medication to treat their child’s impulsive behavior. Although medication is a treatment option, overdiagnosis and overmedication can be rampant in this field. When paired with the multiple side effects that drugs can have, we offer a structured, consistent, individualized behavioral plan as the first step for an effective solution.

This falls in line with a CDC report, which states that therapy should be the first form of treatment, even more so for children under 6 years of age.

A targeted behavioral plan and its implementation at school and home can significantly diminish impulsive behaviors over time. The child is rewarded for specific desirable behaviors, but simultaneously receives consequences for unwanted, negative behaviors. Using this dual approach, we give the child consistent opportunities to be positively reinforced, increasing the likelihood of positive behaviors. While concurrently decreasing negative behaviors via specific consequences.

It is critical to follow through on the rewards and consequences in a timely manner based on the age and capacity of the child. The younger the child, the more necessary it is to have an immediate reward or consequence.. Without follow-through, consistency, timeliness, and tracking of targeted, explicit behaviors, the interventions are less likely to succeed.

For parents, consulting and working closely with your child’s teachers and counselors can also be very beneficial, as a collaborative and professional team approach is ideal.

Tips for Managing Impulsivity in Children

Caring professionals, experienced in developmental assessments and working with children, can identify triggers of your child’s impulsiveness and recommend the best course of action towards managing disruptive behaviors. However, we recognize that seeking professional help can feel overwhelming — for children and parents alike.

If your child is displaying signs of impulsiveness, here are a few strategies you and your child’s teachers can apply to encourage more desirable behaviors:

1. Assign Turns

When in a classroom setting, instantly answering questions or allowing those who raise their hands first to speak encourages impulsivity. Instead, assign turns so that students practice waiting without interrupting.

By delaying gratification you can help kids think about long-term consequences, rather than focusing on short-term benefits. This can also be applied to chores, homework, etc. Offer a clear reward for completing a task, as well as a negative consequence for not doing so.

However, the reward should be close enough to the child’s task to establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the positive action and the reward. For young children, these should be immediate. As they mature, rewards can be pushed further back, to the end of the day, a week, etc.

2. Ask Them to Repeat What You Said

It is common for impulsive children to not effectively listen to directions, run off, and completely forget what they were told.

Teach kids to listen to directions by only letting them go once they fully repeat what you told them. That way, they’re forced to pay attention and explain your instructions. Simply asking “Okay, what did I just tell you?” can have great benefits.

3. Create a Behavioral Point Chart

Select five of your child’s most disruptive behaviors and establish a point system with clear rewards/consequences for each. The child must be invested in the reward/consequence so that there is buy in from the child and they are also invested in achieving the goals. Remember to also include verbal praise when children respond appropriately, to improve the association of positive behavior and positive outcomes.

Final Word on Impulsivity in Children

If your child presents some of the signs outlined above, like interrupting, grabbing, and poor emotional control, the key takeaway here is to consider that they may not be doing it intentionally.

Impulsiveness may be related to underlying neurology, and should be responded to as such. While some kids may need medication, many children can be trained to rewire their impulsivity through a well thought out individualized behavioral plan in home and in school.

The sooner you can implement a behavioral program with children who are being impulsive, emotionally dysregulated, and disruptive, the more likely you will be successful in changing the behaviors to more adaptive ones.

For more details on the markers of impulsivity, associated behaviors, and targeted behavioral plans that you can easily implement in a classroom or the home, please download Managing Impulsive Behavior: Guidelines and Behavioral Charts or book a free 15 minute consult to schedule an assessment for your child today.