Managing Impulsivity

Who or what manages our impulsivity? For the most part, we do! What we chose to think about and fill our minds with is what we learn, and what we learn is how we act. One of my favorite quotes goes as follows:
Sow a thought, reap an act.
Sow an act, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny!
We are the managers of our thoughts and to a strong degree, the thoughts of our children. What they are exposed to certainly influences their thinking and their actions. Our children can be overwhelmed by the amount and frequency of messages in our digital media world. We own the remote control and we have the power to turn it on or turn it off. Managing impulsivity is truly that – management. It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to influence/manage our children’s minds as best we can so that they will in turn learn to self manage. In 1970, Stanford professor, Walter Mischel created an experiment now known as The Marshmallow Test. “Would you like a marshmallow?”, he asked young children. He showed them the marshmallow and then said, “I need to leave you for fifteen minutes and if you wait to eat this marshmallow, I will bring you another.” Few children ate the marshmallow immediately, but only a third were able to stand the test of time and wait out the fifteen minutes. This test of managing impulsivity was followed up fifteen years later to examine the success level of the children who waited. He discovered that in every case, those who waited were healthier, academically more successful, and lived happier lives. For many who couldn’t wait, their lives were fraught with dysfunction. Kids with self control are more capable, creative, and well adjusted than those without.
So where does this skill come from? Is part of our personality? Maybe a bit, but what researchers have discovered is that children who have impulse control have parents and teachers who help them practice it regularly. Challenging our kids to stop and think about the next right thing to do and forsaking what might be immediately pleasurable, or yummy, teaches children to think twice and respond from the thoughtful frontal lobe of our brains instead of reacting from the emotional midbrain. It’s brain grit!
So what’s the trick to learning grit? I believe that it is as simple as remembering that saying “no” is really saying “yes” to something more important. When we say it peacefully, patiently, and persistently, our children recognize that impulse battles can be fought and won with a bit of grit. The first step is to give value to what the impulse is. Name it to tame it. If it is eating a treat or watching more videos, point to it and say it as if it is something outside of you, not within. Pretending it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter is simply a lie. Then look carefully and confidently toward that which we are saying “yes” to. It becomes a simple choice of saying yes to the “yes” and no to the “no”. Learning to recognize and name the bigger “yes” is far stronger than caving in to the smaller no.
Students who have the capacity to manage impulses and wait are more capable of making better decisions on a math exam or a major life choice. Managing impulsivity is twice as important as intelligence is in measuring student achievement. Self control enables us to think more critically and choose more wisely. For each of us, impulses vary depending on our temperament. Children with a strong red kite are likely to be more physically impulsive versus a strong blue kite that will react to relational events. What’s important to know is impulse control can be learned, managed, and nurtured to improve living and learning. Like every habit, a conscious effort to understand the impulsive behavior and a willingness to improve it can reconstruct neural pathways and direct us toward healthier behaviors.
  • Heart – Before eating a meal, wait for everyone to be seated and served.
  • Mind – Play a memory game.
  • Body – Eat after exercise
  • Soul – Repeat phrases that foster courage and grit


“It is easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follow it.” –
Benjamin Franklin
“Grit and bear it; it just might make you smile.” – Mr. B
“He who hurries cannot walk with dignity.” – Chinese Proverb
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This is the habit of not judging ourselves for any less or any more than we really are. It’s a two sided habit. One side is to use our gifts and talents to the fullest, while on the other side restrains our pride from saying or acting as if we are more. Consider the value of a bicycle pedal without the rest of the bike. It’s not very useful, but when connected to the bike it is essential. So, too, is any one person on a team, in a family, or within a class. We are individually valuable as a part of something bigger than ourselves and when we act humble we recognized the value of each person as well as our own.

Thinking humbly helps to focus on personal growth rather than the faults of others. We have the power to influence others, but change can only come from within. Humility is the freedom to live as the very best version of ourselves. As parents and educators, it is our response-ability to alert our children to behaviors less than humble. With a firm, fair, and friendly comment, hold your children responsible for behaviors that will truly make them a better version of themselves. Here is a quick reference to use when your child needs to FIX a mistake:

  • Forgiveness – sincerely apologize or forgive someone for a fault.
  • Identify the logical and natural consequences for the mistake.
  • neXt time, how would you act differently?

Here are a few ways our children can practice humility:

  • Heart – apologize when you hurt someone’s feelings.
  • Mind – write down the lesson learned from a recent mistake.
  • Body – congratulate your friends for their athletic successes.
  • Soul – forgive yourself for not always being the best version of yourself.

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis

“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth. This is now exactly reversed.” – G.K. Chesterton

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