Effective Strategies for Teaching Impulse Control to Children

Effective Strategies for Teaching Impulse Control to Children

Along with potty training and language, there’s a skill set that takes a valiant effort to teach little ones during the toddler stage. Teaching impulse control can seem like an uphill battle, especially with children under five, since it takes repeated attempts and several approaches to see results.

It’s widely known that children in that age range naturally tend to throw things, have tantrums, or behave in other ways that show limited self-control. Some adults, however, do not realize why there’s a lack of impulse control in children. That’s evident from a recent study done by Bezos Family Foundation, which showed that many parents overestimate the ability for impulse control in children.

The study found:

  • Over half of all parents (56 percent) believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age three.
  • Over a third (36 percent) believe children under age two have this kind of self-control.
  • Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of all parents believe children can control their emotions, such as not having a tantrum when frustrated, at one year or younger.
  • Almost half (42 percent) believe children have this ability by two years.

The parents polled may not realize that scientific research disputes these beliefs since impulse control in children does not begin to develop until between ages 3.5 and 4 years old, and even then, it takes several years of teaching impulse control for the behavior to stick.

Why is this the case? Experts in child psychology say that the part of the brain responsible for exerting control over the emotional and mental instincts, the prefrontal cortex, is barely developed by age two and does not mature fully until age 25. Because of that, children in this age range are more likely to yelp at the top of their lungs instead of asking for what they want or taking the juice box from their fellow tyke versus waiting for their own.

At ChildCare Education Institute, we have developed courses that provide evidence-based strategies and impulse control activities for kids to help them develop better decision-making and self-control, which is essential to their emotional and social development. Though teaching impulse control to your students can be frustrating, some techniques can help improve impulse control in children.

Below, we examine some of the best ways to incorporate fun impulse control activities for kids and the proper strategies to find success in teaching impulse control.

Identify and conquer with consequences and rewards.

Earlier, we discussed that it takes decades for the prefrontal cortex to develop fully. You may also wonder how that lack of development impacts impulse control in young children.

Some of the behaviors you might notice are:

  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Destroying things like their toys
  • Taking items from their peers
  • Having physical and verbal outbursts
  • Struggling in the classroom
  • Overeating
  • Fighting with their peers

Observing those behaviors can make you question your ability to control your classroom and navigate discipline as a preschool teacher. That is not the case. It’s not as simple as being a “bad teacher” or having a “bad student.” The hard truth: teaching impulse control in children is an ongoing process that takes practice.

That begins with identifying and addressing students’ lack of impulse control. Addressing the issue is one of the first impulse control activities for kids.

For instance, let’s say you’re instructing the class, and little Johnny begins talking loudly to announce he wants to tell a joke. Once you continue teaching, you notice Johnny escalates.  In mid-sentence, Johnny flails his arms and yells, “I want to tell my joke!” You initially can ignore it, but the whole class’ attention now turns to Johnny in the middle of your lesson on shapes and colors.

What do you do?

You gently tell Johnny to pause and wait to speak, and you explain that it’s not fair to interrupt class time just because he wants to tell a joke. The right thing to do is to wait until there’s a pause in the lesson or free time during the day. He can then say, “Excuse me,” and proceed to ask if he can tell his joke. Making your student aware of the behavior helps them implement better habits.

That awareness must translate into setting rules and limitations for your students. Things like speaking and writing rules on your dry-erase board, such as “no throwing toys” or “we will keep our hands to ourselves at all times,” sets the standard for what your students should expect.

Beyond knowing the rules, the children in your classroom must understand the consequences. What happens if Johnny throws the toy dump truck? Conveying those consequences is a key part of teaching impulse control. They will test the limit, but you must consistently have an outcome that makes the child pause before impulsively acting.  Things like taking the truck away for the day or having the child sit quietly for 15 minutes away from something they want to do are age-appropriate consequences. Those outcomes will help encourage self-discipline.

Just like a negative outcome helps make the mental connection for your students, a positive result could also help them master the skill of self-control. If Johnny spends playtime without throwing a toy or having a tantrum, make him aware that you see his hard work and reward him in some way.

Play games that practice impulse control.

The ultimate crowd-pleaser with children under the age of five: games! The kid in all of us loves a good game, so it’s ideal to incorporate those activities into teaching impulse control. Games are an easier way to grasp learning new things and provide yet another reward and sense of achievement.

Several options serve as interactive impulse control activities for kids. Here are a few:

Freeze Dance

How to play: Color one side of a paper plate green and the other side red. This plate becomes your “stop and go” sign. Explain to your students that “green” means dance and “red” means stop. Turn on your class’ favorite song and see how they respond to the back and forth of freezing and dance time.


How to play: This can be tailored to be more lenient for toddlers than the adults that love the game. You build the 54 blocks by layering three blocks in each row. You then take turns with your students carefully removing the blocks, only using one hand at a time. The goal is to be the last player to remove a block without the tower toppling. Whether the child wins or loses, following the rules and gently removing the blocks will help them develop self-control and patience.

Don’t Break the Ice

How to play: This game will be set up like ice blocks in a glacier. A small plastic pick is used to tap each block out without destroying the whole structure. Similar to Jenga, your students have to be aware of their movements and control their bodies.

Game time helps them practice restraint, thinking carefully, and being more aware of their bodies and surroundings.

Be an example with patience and grace.

Though impulse control starts with yourself, you do have an influence on how your students regulate emotions. Learning to soothe a child challenged by impulsivity also takes time and patience.

One key to that practice is recognizing how your example affects them. When kids see their teachers controlling their anger, using courtesy, and implementing mindfulness, they will want to mirror that behavior. The catch is sometimes a child’s lack of impulse control can provoke emotional reactions from even the calmest educator. Take a temperature check and breathe as you address their behaviors. Everyone benefits from grace and patience when trying to learn something new.

Another way to practice patience is by letting students make mistakes. Teaching impulse control does take implementing consequences, but it’s always important to remember where your students are developmentally. After a moment where Johnny does not display impulse control, you can talk to him about what he was feeling amid that behavior. Help the student understand their feelings and how to better manage them in ways other than acting out. By utilizing impulse control activities for kids, children can better understand and change their behavior for the better.

CCEI offers several courses that provide guidance on reinforcing positive behavior, working on boundaries, and practicing self-control, such as Practicing Positive Guidance with Infants and Toddlers.

Click here to learn more about the course above, as well as our entire catalog of 200+ online offerings.