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Does your child struggle with impulse control?
Remember the story If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? He’ll probably want some milk to go with it. And that will remind him of something else he needs to do, etc etc. This is a perfect example of response inhibition. The mouse keeps flitting from one task to another, making messes, getting emotional, and doing risky things along the way. He can’t control his impulses, and so it makes for a funny, if sometimes frustrating story. He’s basically the spirit animal for ADHD kids everywhere.
The expectations for impulse control differ somewhat at home and in the classroom. For example, at home it might not be a big deal to get up and take a break mid-lesson, while at school it can be disruptive. However, there are some impulse control issues that we can all agree on. Angry outbursts, destructive behavior, and actions that put your child’s safety or could harm another person are all big examples of a lack of impulse control. Other behaviors that may seem more minor are avoiding tasks like school work or chores, making careless mistakes, and giving up easily.
Related reading: Executive Functioning Checklist: Where does your child fall?
Using Impulse Control Activities with Your Kids
If you have a child who struggles, there are many ways to work on developing the skills they need to better control their impulses. In the following post, we’ve gathered 15 ideas that can be used formally in the classroom or informally at home to help. Not every item on this list will fit every child. However, we hope that these will be a jumping off point for you. And by the end of this post, you will have a good idea of how to guide your child to make positive changes.
If you want to do some other activities to build your child’s strengths in the other areas of executive function, you can find 50+ suggestions in the Executive Function Activity Masterlist.
15 Impulse Control Activities for Kids
Whether you’re teaching at home or in the classroom, working these types of activities into your daily schedule can be both fun and helpful for developing executive functioning skills. Taking a few moments to play a game can help give your child a much needed brain break from their regular routine.
There are so many games that double as impulse control activities for kids. Some of these include:
- Simon Says
- Freeze Dance/Freeze Tag
- Mother May I
- Musical Chairs
- Slapjack, Spoons, and other card games that require quick responses but require attention attention
- Games that require turn-taking, like Candy Land, Jenga, and bowling
- Singing songs that increasingly remove words like “My hat, it has three corners”
There’s a lot to love about martial arts for a kid with ADHD, especially traditional forms. They teach routine and structure, require focus and attention, and burn a lot of energy! Taekwondo and karate also use colored belt leveling systems to give kids tangible rewards. Plus, many kids with ADHD can struggle with self-esteem and feeling rejected by peers, both of which can be combated (pun intended) by some martial arts classes with other like-minded kids.
When it comes to impulse control, martial arts are great for teaching kids to curb their enthusiasm and redirect it. Many sensis and instructors have children count (yell) out loud verbally. This helps them stay focused and keeps their attention on the task at hand. They also have to practice turn taking, one of many key impulse control activities for kids.
Impulse Control Activities: Fidget toys for Kids
If your child is primarily struggling with being physically impulsive, a fidget toy might help. After all, you can’t punch your brother or knock down random items in the grocery store if you’ve got a fidget cube, silly putty, or a stress ball going in your hands!
Fidget toys can be used at school, at home, and out in the world. It may take a few tries to see what fidget toy(s) work for your kid. You also might find that some work perfectly as a distraction to keep their hands busy when you’re out and about, but the same toy is an unwanted distraction when they’re working on math. It’s trial and error, but luckily there are a lot of options to choose from.
If you need more ideas for sensory toys, I’ve written an article about that.
Visual Cues Everywhere
At school: Does your child blurt things out 20 times a day? Try putting a notecard on their desk with a picture of a hand raised to remind them of the SOP before they act. If the child tends to get out of their seat and go look out the window or talk to a friend, a picture of a happy, seated kid can help trigger the appropriate behavior. Whatever the most common impulsive behaviors are, offering a visual reminder can help.
At home: Visual cues work here, too, but they can be more personalized. If you have a child, for example, who is excited to hop right out of the car before you can barely get it into Park: talk to your child about the expected behavior. Practice it and take a picture of when they are able to do it correctly and safely. In this instance, it would be staying seated with seatbelt fastened until you unlock the doors, perhaps. Stick that on your dashboard as a reminder to your child, you can do it.
At home or school: You also can post schedules for the day around your room or home. This helps your child feel less anxious and more prepared for what comes next, so they aren’t blurting out questions about “when is lunch” or “how much longer until snack.”
Make Up Behavior Songs
Have you ever heard a song so “sticky” you couldn’t break the association to a particular time, place, or activity, even years later? (I know I have. Every time I have to spell bananas I get that Gwen Sefani song stuck in my head.)
Try coming up with songs to sing in the classroom or at home that describe appropriate behavior. Songs like “eyes are watching, ears are listening” and “clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere” are popular. But you can just search “behavior songs” on youtube and find tons of examples. Or create your own using popular melodies and words that make sense for that child’s particular impulsive behaviors.
Impulse Control Activities: Using Rewards
This is probably one of the most frequently suggested methods for helping kids with executive dysfunction. The trick becomes finding a system that works for your particular kid. Here’s my recipe for a good behavior modification chart.
- First, look at 1-3 impulsive behaviors you and your child want to work on.
- Next, estimate how often a day they do all of them combined. The goal is to either (1) reduce that number to fewer and fewer daily instances over time or (2) increase the number of times they do the opposite (desired) behavior.
- Then, figure out how you want to keep track of daily “points.” Some people have a cup with cotton balls or marbles, others use an abacus.
- Finally, talk to your child about a good reward. Note: these don’t have to be physical rewards, or even rewards that cost money. A small reward might be a high five!
One example for reducing negative behavior
We want Hudson to 1) make fewer random animal noises, 2) not sing the O’Reily Auto Parts jingle as often, and 3) stop grabbing his neighbor’s pencils. I have a cup of 10 legos pieces that sits on my desk. For every time Hudson does one of his impulsive behaviors, I take a lego piece out. At the end of the day, he gets a small reward (a fancy fist bump) if there’s even one lego piece left.
For some kids this might be enough. For others, you may need to up the ante. If there’s more than 5, he gets the medium reward- the chance to pick the class dance song during a transition time. If all ten are still there, he gets the large reward- 15 minutes of Minecraft at the end of that day.
And another for increasing positive behavior
Other kids may respond to an emphasis on positive behaviors, especially if we are dealing with ODD. In this case, pick out a positive behavior or a few that you would like to see repeated throughout the day. Every time you “catch” your child doing the positive behavior (using gentle hands with the cat, cleaning up what they had out, using the markers only on paper, etc) you put a Lego into the cup.
In some cases, your child might see earning enough Legos to fill the cup (over a few days) as a reward in itself – have them count the Legos up & pour on the praise! Other kids might need other external awards for motivation as they reach certain milestones to keep them motivated.
Using Reward Systems at Home
Reward charts are one of the most frequently used tools by teachers, but what about at home? If you’re working on impulse control at home, yes, reward charts can work here, too. Not every child will respond positively to reward systems, but it may be worth a shot. A few things to keep in mind:
✓ Make it manageable
What works in a classroom might not be manageable at home. Traditional sticker charts that stay on desks, for instance, are great for the classroom. However, keeping up with a sticker chart might have you running to the fridge 15 times a day. That’s not always convenient, especially if you are working on behaviors out and about in the world. The Lego example, above, is a great example of something that can be mobile and easier to keep up with.
✓ Work on one or two things at a time
While there may be a variety of things you’d like to work on – take it one step at a time. Make the expectations super clear for your child, and try to focus on only the thing(s) they’re working on. You don’t want to be handing out or taking away 72 Legos a day! That’s a lot to remember and keep up with as a parent – and can get overwhelming quickly for your child.
✓ Consistency is Key
The feedback I’ve heard from most parents is that while rewards work at first, they tend to dwindle. The key is to keep it consistent . That might mean figuring out a way to make it easier on yourself or involving your child to self-monitor. For example, you keep a stash of Legos in your pocket, but it’s your child’s responsibility to run them over to the cup when you hand them out.
✓ Look for Mastery
If you’re working on impulse control activities at home, there’s one more thing to keep in mind. A reward system is not meant to be an ongoing, long-term or year-long task. It may only be a matter of days or weeks before your child is ready to move on. This might not look like 100% perfection, and that’s okay!
The goal is to help your kid work on impulse control so they can manage themselves more effectively, then move on to the next activity. That might mean focusing on a new behavior and swapping Legos in a cup to ping pong balls in a hat, a celebratory dance party, or a certificate of achievement for the fridge. You’ve talked to your child about the expectations. They know they’re working on it. Let them know they’ve achieved it. But be aware that you may have to remind them that they no longer drag the dog around by the tail from time to time.
Impulse control activities for kids that WON’T work
You’re probably getting a sense of what will work for you, now. So let’s talk about some things that really don’t work – at home or in the classroom: Constantly putting your child in time out or grounding them is unlikely to work, especially not all on its own.
Part of the reason is because a child with executive dysfunction struggles to remember consequences. You could threaten to “ground them for a year,” but ten minutes later they still might do it because they already forgot your threat.
Another part is that your child might not connect sitting down quietly with changing their behavior. “I kick my brother to get the remote” does not naturally equate to “I sit on the step for ten minutes.”
Using Natural Consequences
Of course, children with executive dysfunction do still need discipline. A diagnosis doesn’t magically excuse aggressive, defiant, or dangerous behavior. However, these kids do better with consequences that are immediate and ‘natural.’
Rather than using time-out or grounding as a catch-all for undesirable behavior, take a beat to think about natural consequences. This might include understanding more about what motivated your child’s behavior as well.
If they kick little brother in a tussle for the remote, maybe the natural consequence is no TV for the rest of the day.
Hit their sister at dinnertime? Perhaps they don’t get any ice cream immediately after like usual.
Throwing toys or other materials around the room? Maybe they lose that item for the day.
When taking a time out is necessary…
There are times when removing a child from a stressful situation is appropriate. This is especially the case with emotional outbursts, especially in school or public. Your child might be angry or upset which may be compounded by others observing their behavior.
During these times, a time out feels like a punishment. However, your child probably doesn’t understand why they are being punished for something they can’t control. Instead, frame it positively. Use a calm down spot or take your child out of the situation and talk to them calmly. Don’t be afraid to abandon your shopping cart or excuse your child to their room or to the car. Do talk to them about the situation once they’ve calmed down.
Remember, your kid is working on activities for impulse control. That means they probably feel out of control when they’re behaving impulsively. You’ll get more mileage out of building up their weak impulse control in the long term.
Try some of the activities listed above! They’ll boost your child’s ability to self-regulate and think through their actions BEFORE they cause problems.
For more reading on this topic:
- Homeschool ADHD Schedule: 13 Hacks + A Sample Schedule
- Accommodations for Autism: 21 Best Recommendations
- Accommodations for ADHD: 25+ Tips & Recommendations
- Stress-free Morning Routines for Kids with ADHD
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.