Managing Impulsivity in Children: Tips and Tools
Many parents and teachers struggle with excessively impulsive 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 believe that the child cognitively knows better, remembers the rules, and is even smart enough to know that the behavior is inappropriate. However, they struggle to empathize and understand the child because he or she lacks 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?
Some level of impulsiveness is to be expected in young kids as they grow and learn to control their impulses. However, this behavior may become excessive, to the point where it is 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, many adults are unaware of this condition and still believe that an impulsive child is intentionally acting that way, and can stop at any time.
Signs of Impulsivity in Kids
To properly treat and manage impulsivity, caregivers and educators need to identify when their behavior is out of the norm.
Some examples of excessively impulsive behavior include:
- Difficulty taking turns
- Acting before thinking
- Poor emotional regulation
- Becoming easily frustrated
Once properly identified, there are several ways in which a child may be treated to manage their symptoms.
How to Manage Impulsive Behavior
Many parents immediately turn to medication to treat their child’s impulsive behavior. Although medication is a treatment option, overdiagnosis and overmedication are rampant in this field. When paired with the multiple side effects that these drugs can have, we believe that a structured, consistent, individualized behavioral plan is often the more suitable 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. 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 the root causes of your child’s impulsiveness and recommend the best course of action towards manage unwanted 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 properly 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 interpret 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 avoiding each one or failing to do so. Remember to also include verbal praise when children behave correctly, to improve the association of positive behavior and positive outcomes.
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 can be caused by neurological conditions, and should be treated as such. While some kids may need medication, a great deal of others can mitigate negative behaviors with a well-thought-out plan.
The sooner you can implement a behavioral program with younger children who are being impulsive, aggressive, and disrespectful, 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.