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Impulsive Behavior

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 24, 2013

Campbell and Werry (1986) define impulsivity as "erratic and poorly controlled behavior" (p. 120). Teachers who refer to a student as being impulsive usually conjure up images of students who rarely stop to think before they act, who attempt tasks before they fully understand the directions, who often demonstrate remorse when their actions have led to errors or mishaps, who call out frequently in class (usually with the wrong answer), and who have difficulty organizing their materials.

Kauffman (1989) notes that impulsive behavior is normal in young students, but that as students grow older, most learn alternative responses. Olson and colleagues (Olson, Bates, & Bayles, 1990) point out that 2-year-old students will begin to "inhibit prohibited actions owing to remembered information" (p. 318), but state that "self-regulation does not develop until the 3rd or 4th year of life" (p. 318).

Students who manifest impulsive behavior often get into trouble in social situations such as games and play activities (Melloy, 1990). Because they demonstrate poor impulse control, these students are apt to take their turn before its time, or to respond incorrectly to game stimuli (e.g., questions). Some students who have poor impulse control may respond to teasing, for example, by hitting the person who teases them, They are often sorry for their actions and can discuss what they should have done had they taken time to think about their action. Unfortunately, impulsivity places students at higher risk for smoking (Kollins, McClernon, & Fuemmeler, 2005), illegal drug use (Semple, Zians, Grant, & Patterson, 2005), eating disorders (Peake, Limbert, & Whitehead, 2005), and suicide (Swann, Dougherty, Pazzaglia, Pham, Steinberg, & Moeller, 2005).

D'Acremont and Van der Linden (2005) identify four dimensions of impulsivity:

  • Urgency: Student is in a hurry.
  • Lack of premeditation: Student acts before he thinks or plans.
  • Lack of perseverance: Student gives up on a task.
  • Sensation seeking: Student seeking fun without thinking of consequences.

They also found that among impulsive children, boys had higher scores for sensation seeking and girls for urgency. Assessment of impulsivity usually involves the use of behavioral checklists, behavior ratings, mazes, match-to-sample tasks, and behavioral observations (Olson et al., 1990; Shafrir & Pascual-Leone, 1990; Vitiello, Stoft Atkins, & Mahoney, 1990).

Common Causes and Antecedents of lmpulsive Behavior

Multiple Factors

As is the case for so many attention and activity behaviors, no one actually knows what causes impulsivity (Campbell & Werry, 1986; Kauffman, 2005). Impulsivity is most likely related to the same multiple factors discussed in the prior sections on attentiveness and hyperactivity, including childhood temperament, family environment, gender, and parental characteristics (Leve, Kim, & Pears, 2005).

Failure to Self-Monitor

Shafrir and Pascual-Leone (1990) conducted a study with 378 students between 9 and 12 years of age to determine the effect of attention to errors on academic tasks and the relationship to reflective/impulsive behavior. Shafrir and Pascual-Leone administered a number of measures, including mazes and match-to-sample tasks, to determine response behavior, and tests of academic achievement to evaluate arithmetic abilities. They report that students who completed tasks quickly and accurately tended to take time to check their answers. If an error occurred, they took time to correct the error and used the information learned in correction of the error to assist them in completing the rest of the task. This resulted in fewer errors overall and completion of the task in a more timely fashion. They call these students post failure reflective (p,385).

In comparison, students who are referred to as post failure impulsive (Shafrir & Pascual-Leone, 1990, p. 385) were found to complete tasks slowly and inaccurately. These students plodded through the task without checking answers for correctness.

They simply went on to the next problem with no reference to previously completed tasks. Shafrir and Pascual-Leone conclude that the lack of post failure reflection by this group led to more errors because they did not learn from their previous errors. The implications of the results of this study are that students possess some type of "reflection/impulsivity cognitive style" (p. 386), which was first proposed by Kagan (see Kagan, Pearson, & Welch, 1966). Also, students who appear to be taking their time (slow thinkers) in actuality make more errors than the students who complete the tasks quickly (reflective thinkers).

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