5 Tips for Building Impulse Control

I highly recommend reading Smart but Scattered, by Dr. Peg Dawson and Dr. Richard Guare. This easy-to-read book is chalk full of helpful information, interventions, strategies, and outlines for any parent, educator, or individual who works with children displaying challenging behaviors. My following tips are based upon strategies outlined from "Chapter 11 Building Response Inhibition" in Smart but Scattered.

Response Inhibition or Impulse control is one’s ability to think before acting. This is a foundational skill that helps us all navigate decisions, situations, and importantly is a key to safety and survival. For some children, certain situations may elicit challenging behaviors and the skills we would expect/want them to have for their given age have not been acquired through observation or modeling and they may need more specific direct instruction. By being attentive, setting limits, having expectations and consequences for behaviors most children can learn impulse control. Learning impulse control can be particularly challenging for children who display behavior associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In an academic setting, challenges with impulse control can be seen when a child has difficulty raising their hand in class, waiting for their turn, not calling out answers, staying in their seat, or not hitting peers.

When a parent tells a young child, “don’t touch the hot oven” that is baking the chocolate cake, they are setting limits and giving a direction aimed at addressing and building impulse control.

When a child looks both ways to check for cars before entering a street they are demonstrating impulse control.

When you pause and wait a day before sending that email calling your boss a $#%! you are demonstrating impulse control.

  5 Tips

5 Tips

1.              Practice Waiting: Learning to wait is a valuable and fundamental life skill. Waiting comes easier for some than others. For those who experience waiting to be a difficult skill, practicing can help. Start small, using a timer and build up over time. Keep in mind the age and development of the child. It would be unrealistic to expect a 3-year-old to wait silently for 15 minutes for you to get off the phone when they want a snack. Practicing waiting while at home can be fun! Try incorporating tasks like cooking or baking with your child (it’s hard to hurry up a chocolate chip cookie). Learning to delay gratification is an important life skill that goes hand in hand with waiting and impulse control. Learning to wait for a big reward later instead of a smaller reward now is associated with academic success.

2.              Earning privileges can teach delayed gratification: Waiting for the earned reward after completing a task teaches delayed gratification.  This could be after completing homework every day for a week the child earns a toy, movie, or screen time. The reward should be motivating to sustain the behavior across time. Implementing a first/then schedule also teaches delayed gratification. Example: first get in your pajamas, then you can have dessert. An example of delayed gratification in academics can occur when a young adult chooses to attend and complete college to earn a higher paying job instead of going straight to work earning minimum wage after high school.

3.              Discuss with the child natural consequences to poor impulse control: There are naturally occurring consequences for most behaviors. Throughout life, we experience naturally occurring consequences which help in our learning process.  If you stay up late, you may be tired the next day. If you forgot your umbrella in a storm you will get wet. If you don’t prepare and study you likely won’t do well on the exam.  Friends may not play with you if you hit them. Also, to promote success, discuss and remind the child of the rules/consequences beforehand such as you must finish your homework before playtime or no play time.

4.              Preparation, Preparation, Preparation: Discuss the challenging situation and expectations for behavior before going into the situation. Trying to always teach in the moment or retroactively can be very frustrating for the child and may not provide them the opportunity to succeed. Provide cues before the child enters the situation and give specific target behavior you’re looking for and reward with praise immediately after you see the behavior. Example: What are the rules for playing with X? If you win/lose a game what do you say or do? How do we greet friend/ teacher/ grandma? If the target behavior is greeting a teacher in the morning by making eye contact and saying hello instead of running past them, discuss the situation and behaviors you want them to do and why before being in front of the teacher.

5.              Role play and practice: Practice the difficult and/or challenging behavior before the event. If you know you are going into a situation that you expect to challenge your child, rehearse and practice what they can expect and how they can behave well. Just like you would prepare for a job interview or business presentation, children need to practice for their successes too. Example: Role play and practice what they can expect about going to the dentist. Role play what being on the airplane/traveling may be like and expectations for safe and “good” behavior. For big, potentially challenging situations like doctor’s visits or flying being prepared with toys, distractors, and rewards can be helpful.


Please call me, Dr. Sarah Jacobs-Paul, at 619-403-5578 at ext. 701 to schedule an appointment and discuss how I can help support you in implementing these and other tips and techniques to support and promote your child’s success.


Dr. Sarah Jacobs-Paul is a registered Psychological Assistant (PSB94023195) under the supervision of licensed psychologist, Dr. Abigail Weissman (PSY 27497) of Waves, A Psychological Corporation. 

More information about Dr. Sarah Jacobs-Paul's experience and practice can be found HERE

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