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.

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.

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.


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. 

Teachers and Staff
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Impulse Control Accommodations

My favorite site for evidence-based….well……everything is Intervention Central. They are an excellent source for successful academic and behavioral interventions.

Yes, these are behavior-based interventions. This assumes that the student has the skill set and only needs reinforcement to use the skill.

If a child lacks a skill, you cannot reward and punish a skill into the child. You must teach the underlying lacking skill.

Here are a few good suggestions:

  • Using various tools (usually student’s choice), dry erase, index card, or a sheet of paper, place a checkmark or sticker for every 15 minutes that the student stays on task. This can be cumbersome in a large class, so maybe start with the student being nearby so it can be done seamlessly while teaching.
  • If a certain amount of lines are checked, that student gets some reward (free time, a walk, etc.). This can be adapted on a period-by-period or daily basis. It should, after a reasonable amount of time, be weaned away from.
  • Another idea is a  rating scale with emojis, stars, or check marks. How did I do this period/today?

Finally, a checklist with either words or icons that the student can check off during the day. As with the first strategy, it should always have a specific time frame and be weaned away.

(Use check marks and emojis; need to earn a certain amount each day; eventually weaning)

Reading_____   ______   _____
Math______  ______  _______
English_______ _______ ______
Social Studies______ ______  ______

Or, the checklist can be modified for grade level:

Daily GoalEmoji or written comment
Keep in mind the below items
should be specifically defined
; ie- what does
“prepared for class” mean for that student?
Prepared for class
Stayed on task most of the time
Completed work
Homework handed in
Small to no behavioral disruptions


These strategies are suitable for any student, even temporarily. However, they can be excellent tools for those with ADHD or, in some cases, Autism. In recent years mindfulness strategies and interventions have been quite effective.

While participating in mindfulness activities, students are trained to focus on calming images and words. Mindfulness activities can be simple and short, yoga-based, and meditative, to name a few interventions.

Studies show that regular or semi-regular meditative practices limit impulsivity and increase focus. Some examples are doing yoga stretches, concentrating on each of the senses, counting, and visualizing.

Here are some practical ideas for children of various ages to make modifications for age/grade level in their toolbox to draw from regularly.

This takes teaching, modeling, and practice to be beneficial strategies for the child.

  1. Deep breathing and visualizing something beautiful, unique, and happy place
  2. Art, drawing, especially therapeutic coloring
  3. Lie on the floor with a stuffed toy on your belly and deep breath, watching the toy go up and down without falling.
  4. Taking a walk
  5. Teaching students what it feels like to be grounded. Stand firmly and focus on each part of the body.
  6. Mantras and affirmations: for example, in my class, we say things like, “I can’t do this…yet,”; “I can’t read this…….yet”, and “I can’t do this math…….yet.”  Write mantras and affirmations together to use as a class, or let each child have their own. 
  7. Where it is possible, a calming down place where there is coloring, bubbles, and even peaceful music
  8. Journaling where appropriate
  9. Teaching meditation
  10. Naming things to be grateful for
  11. Setting a daily goal

These things are great individually or as a group, but what about in the moment? I have had kids that need impulse control at the moment. We have practiced some of these things above in calmer moments and then reminded them in those crisis moments.

I teach a self-contained high school special education class, a life skills classroom. We set up a spot in the classroom with calming activities. They are taught to count, and we make sure they know the different strategies we know are helpful for them individually.

Then, in a crisis moment, I will start calling it out, “remember counting, 1,2,3….., remember we can walk, remember we can sit and calm down, remember we can walk, remember we can (insert mindfulness activity that works for that student).

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