It’s really ironic that I’m presenting an article on impulse control because it is something I struggle with myself. Thankfully, I have improved this skill as I’ve aged. And, my impulse control disorder behavior is low risk or low stakes.

It’s things like ordering the large fries when in my head, I know that small fries or a salad is the better option. Or, buying another purse at TJMaxx when the better choice would be to remind myself that I have 10 purses in my closet that never get used.

teen boys at school who are on their phone during school a lack of impulse control
Two teenage boys playing a handheld video game in school by their lockers.

But for some kids, their lack of impulse control results in behaviors that are suspension-worthy or worse.

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Self-regulation is very much the evidence-based model for both academic and behavioral success. Oftentimes, strategies are implemented for students to take ownership of their school work and their behavior, which is great if you have the skill sets.

Again I remind everyone to consider “can’t” vs “won’t” when evaluating how successful a child is at exhibiting a skill.

Self-regulation and/or impulse control go hand in hand. There are overlapping subsets of skills here, including:

It might feel overwhelming to both parents and teachers when tackling this issue with a student. But, working on each sub-skill separately can actually make it easier for everyone.

Also Read: Accommodations for Impulse Control.

Impulse Control Definition

The Annual Review of Psychology Self-Control and Academic Achievement defines Impulse Control as:

Self-control refers to the alignment of thoughts, feelings, and actions with enduringly valued goals in the face of momentarily more alluring alternatives. 

So, this is my dilemma. Lower blood pressure, less body fat, and better overall health….or the large french fries at Five Guys? More money in my checking account or a new purse? Which is more alluring?

Students and Impulse Control

If a child is learning disabled and is struggling to grasp a concept, is when impulse control issues may erupt.

The content is too challenging to learn. Or it’s not being presented in a manner in which the child can understand it. Or the child cannot focus. I could go on and on…the child cannot read proficiently, write proficiently, proficiently process auditory information….and it’s not hard to make an otherwise dull thing suddenly “alluring.”

This student is struggling with self-control to focus on the lesson. This student will continue to struggle with math.

Compared to another student who does not present such impulse control issues, this student cannot focus on the big picture, like doing better in math. This student needs strategies for impulse control.

Impulse control as a secondary behavior, possibly due to ADHD or Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, is quite common.

Let’s create a hypothetical student that is playing basketball in the gym. The student repeatedly tries to dunk the ball in the basket and is doing pretty well, but not all of them make it through the hoop.

basketball

Well, now that ball is being dribbled harder and possibly aimed at another person or the wall with exerted force. This student has impulse control when it comes to behavior. Again, another student will be disappointed but be able to look at the bigger picture, that they will improve over time or just not their lucky day.

However, in both the academic and behavioral situation, our hypothetical students could not look beyond that moment, that struggle, and exhibit impulse control.

Needless to say, if it is happening at school, it is happening at home too. While this may be an issue for the teacher and other students, more importantly, this is not the optimal quality of life for the said hypothetical student.

We can conjure up a wide variety of examples in many different situations across all the grades in school. Now let’s play ball! Let’s talk about intervention strategies. 

IEP Goals for Impulse Control

Let’s look at some IEP SMART (remember Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timelined) goals for students: 

  • Elizabeth will use strategies for behavioral impulse control (such as counting, sitting, and taking a walk)  with 90%  frequency in 4 out of 5 trials by June 2023.
  • Jesse will use strategies for impulse control for staying on task (self-regulation chart with checkboxes) with 90% frequency in 4 out of 5 trials by 2023.
  • Remember, attainable and realistic means that the teacher is teaching, reteaching, modeling, and consistently practicing with the individual student that needs these goals.

Teaching students to be self-reliant is setting them up for success post-graduation. It is so important to start this as soon as they enter school.

Each student should be viewed as an individual, and a teacher must always strive to look for evidence-based strategies to achieve goals that contribute to impulse control for academics and behavior.

It is not only part of our job but our privilege!

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Linda Gilmartin is a high school special education teacher, an adjunct college professor for future teachers, Administrator of the social media group Transitioning Teens/Adults with Special Needs Life After High School, and Author of Transitioning Special Needs Teenagers and Adults

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