Learning to Manage the Impulses

Picture this. It is a stunning day with wall to wall sunshine and I’m at a resort on the coast of Australia. To escape the heat, I decided to go for a bushwalk. I briskly follow the undulating and winding path as I took in the scenery and listened to the bird calls. As I rounded a corner I suddenly froze. Five metres ahead of me was something long, brown and squiggly. My first and frightening thought was a snake! I come from a country, New Zealand, with zero poisonous creatures (well that can actually harm you!) My pulse increased, my breathing rate quickened, and I was frozen to the spot. I knew nothing about snakes. I questioned myself, “is it harmless, poisonous, do they move fast?” My mind raced and my impulse to run in the direction I have come was incredibly strong. I took a deep breath and looked closer. It turns out that it was a stick!

Impulsivity is one of the brains protection mechanisms. When facing danger, whether real or perceived, biological changes happen in the neo-cortex where rational thinking and problem solving occurs. This results in an instant response of the brain to freeze, fight or flee. It is also the same place in our brain where we control our impulses. During a time of threat or perceived danger, the neo-cortex becomes less efficient. In the event above, my amazing brain was simply trying to protect me.

Stress, threat and danger can come in many forms; hunger or sugar overload, fear of failure or success, the lights are too bright stressing the brain, the environment is too noisy, a fight with a peer, the list is endless. Impulsive behaviour may indicate a need for protection and or safety and may cause a slowing of the ability to think logically and rationally.

There are many times when students also need to manage their impulsivity. To think before they act, consider alternatives, and reflect on their goals, process and outcomes. Prof. Art Costa and Dr Bena Kallick included the ability to manage impulsivity as one of their Habits of Mind. They describe it as “Taking your time, being able to think before acting, remaining calm, thoughtful and deliberative.”

People who manage their impulsivity have an intentionality about their goals, actions and plan where they want to end up. They are effective problem solvers who are able to think before they act. Patience is key, and they decrease the need for trial and error by taking the time to reflect and consider possibilities and consequences. Both Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman suggest that the less impulsive a student is the more successful they are.

Managing Impulsivity can be explicitly taught, and like most good things, takes time. Below are some ideas to test out, adapt and implement in your classroom.

Strategies & Structures:

If you want students to wait, it is essential to teach students what they could be doing while waiting and being patient. Just expecting them to be patient isn’t enough. Brainstorm ideas of what they can do while waiting. Milena, a teacher in Brazil, teaches her 3-year-old students three strategies while they wait. These are to count to ten in their head, breathe deeply and slowly and drum their fingers on a desk while waiting.  With older students consider giving them step by step structures for thinking and problem-solving. Students may require practice with the teacher modelling and or on paper before they can do it internally.

Role Playing:

Brainstorm and practise using the strategies you want students to use. For example, if students find it challenging to line up and wait, discuss the behaviours they might implement when lining up and waiting. Now practice these behaviours, give feedback and practice again. You might practice this five to ten times on the first day. Repeat on day two, three and four until they can do it successfully. Similarly, if students need to learn how to manage themselves when they are working independently, ask two students to bring their desks to the front of the classroom. Have one act out working independently and the other student interrupt, bump and annoy. Again, have the class brainstorm strategies. Now pair all the students up and roleplay the scene several times. Muscle memory and new behaviours take time to embed.

Traffic Light Strategy:

This is a visual reminder for students to Stop, Think and Go as they go through the cycle of the traffic light colours. I have seen senior High School students doing actions to this. Stop – hand out in stop action, think – point to the brain, go – a forward-moving motion with the hands.

STAR Strategy:

Stop—Count to 10. Take a deep breath. Take a walk or a break.
Think—What is it about this situation that’s causing my feelings?
Act—what actions can I take to relieve these feelings?
Reflect—Was this a good solution? What insights have I gained?

Wait Time:

When asking a question or calling upon a student to give an answer, wait between seven to ten seconds to give them time to think, consider ideas and alternatives. When I’m modelling this is the classroom, I often hear myself saying, “What I really value is that you have taken the time to think about an answer, rather than you being the first to answer.” Model this wait time and thought-fullness when student ask you a question also. Pause and ponder before you speak.

Following Instructions:

Do you give students a list of instructions or tasks and they rush off and do the first step and not know what to do next? One technique to adopt, to help students to think through their tasks, steps and outcomes, is to invite them to pause and ponder what they will be doing if they were following the instructions correctly. To visualise successfully completing all the steps or tasks and seeing a favourable outcome.

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Published on Monday, July 5th, 2021, under Habits of Mind, Teacher Effectiveness

Karen Tui Boyes is a champion for Life Long Learning across nations, industries and organisations. Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2017 and 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013 & 2019, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

4 Responses to “Learning to Manage the Impulses”

  1. Carmen Blatti says:

    Thank you for sharing these very manageable strategies. I am sharing with my staff.

    I welcome further insights to learn ways to improve our professional work as teachers are required to manage many behaviours which can interupt the flow of a lesson.
    Thank you

  2. Suzanne Blackstock says:

    This is a really hard thing for some of the teenagers I work with which can be compounded with anxiety. I will be having a go at the traffic light – sometimes the “breathe” message is not visual enough for my learners. Thanks for these mind bites!

    • Karen Boyes says:

      Yes – often a challenge with teens – the more they understand how their brains work – and practise being able to reflect on their thinking the better. Takes time 🙂

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