Impulse control has nothing to do with knowing the rules or the consequences of breaking them. Many children with challenging behavior—especially those who interrupt and talk over others, blurt out answers without raising their hands, and have difficulty taking turns—can tell you all about the rules and why their behavior was inappropriate, but this knowledge doesn’t help them. Children with FASD also have a problem with impulse control because prenatal exposure to alcohol damages the frontal lobe, which controls inhibitions and judgment.

Daniel Goleman writes, “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self-control, since all emotions, by their very nature, lead to one or another impulse to act” (1997, p. 81). See "The Marshmallow Test" below.

Children learn self-control skills between the ages of 2 and 5. Besides the ability to delay gratification (if you can wait, you can have two marshmallows), these include:

  • Tolerating frustration (putting away the blocks without getting angry when it’s time for lunch)
  • Inhibiting action, also called effortful control (waiting at the starting line for the race to begin rather than starting to run immediately)
  • Adapting behavior to the context (talking quietly in the library) (Giuliani, 1997)

In the hurly-burly of classroom give-and-take, children often go on automatic pilot and act impulsively. They do what they’ve always done, and if they’ve behaved aggressively in the past, then aggressive behavior just reappears. According to Ronald G. Slaby and his colleagues (1995), children act impulsively for several reasons:

  • They have trouble regulating their emotions.
  • They don’t listen carefully.
  • If they have verbal skills that could help them to stop and think, they may not use them.
  • It doesn’t occur to them to consider what else they could do or what will happen if they respond aggressively. To them, passive or aggressive solutions seem perfectly all right.

One of the secrets to impulse control is learning the difference between feelings and actions, Goleman says (1997). When a child learns to recognize that she’s feeling angry or frustrated, she can also learn that having that feeling is a signal to stop and think—not a signal to act. Part of learning to identify the feeling is learning that it’s all right to feel whatever she’s feeling and that she can express those feelings without behaving aggressively.

Remaining calm is also central. The two-marshmallow 4-year-olds employed a strategy that works very well: “self-speak” or verbal mediation. The child thinks out loud to guide her own behavior. Several research-based social skills programs teach children to remind themselves aloud to “stop, look, and listen” when they realize they’re becoming angry or frustrated. Teachers can model this method, making the usually hidden process of reasoning more apparent to all the children. Children can also learn to take deep breaths, count to five, or do relaxation exercises.

Practice these techniques with the children when they’re composed, and rehearse them in role-plays of potentially provocative situations with puppets, teachers, and peers before trying them in real life. Provide lots of cues, prompts, and reinforcement when children are using them with their peers in the classroom.

Prevention is extremely important when you’re teaching impulse control. As always, knowing the child is key: It enables you to predict when and where she’s likely to explode. If you monitor closely, remind her of the rules and expected behavior, help her identify her feelings, and give her a script of what to say before she loses control, you are providing useful information and cues that will eventually enable her to control herself. Give the child plenty of encouragement and as much help—both physical and verbal—as she needs to ensure that she’ll succeed (Schmidt, 1996).

The Marshmallow Test

Daniel Goleman describes an extraordinary study begun by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. In this study, researchers told 4-year-olds that they could have two marshmallows if they could wait about 15 minutes for the researcher to do an errand. If they couldn’t wait, they could have a marshmallow right away—but just one.

About two-thirds of the children earned both marshmallows. They covered their eyes, sang, talked to themselves, and played games with their hands and feet to fend off temptation.

The researchers sought out these children again when they were graduating from high school. They discovered that the double-marshmallow children were extremely socially competent—“personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life.” In addition, they were superior students, with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than the single-marshmallow children.

The impulsive children’s inability to delay gratification had them cost dearly. As adolescents, they were more likely to be seen as stubborn, indecisive, easily upset by frustration, mistrustful, jealous, and prone to fights and arguments (Goleman, 1997, pp. 80–82).