Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Taming Young Children's Impulses

      We know that impulsiveness is a natural part of young children's development. However, we also know that children who don't gain some control over their impulses have a difficult time being successful in school settings, especially as they enter the more structured primary grades. Today I'll share some ideas for teaching children how to inhibit these impulses - an important part of executive functioning. It's important to remember that young children do not learn how to control themselves by being punished, lectured to, chastised, or embarrassed. They learn self-control the same way they learn other things: modeling, practice, feedback on how they're doing, and more modeling, and practice!
     The best resource I know is from the Center for the Social and Emotional Foundations of Early Learning and it's a technique called Tucker Turtle. (Click here to go to a PowerPoint version of the story). In a nutshell, the technique involves having children practice acting like turtles when they are upset - going into their shell, counting to three, and thinking of a way to make it better. You can print out the story and make it into a book to read to the children, have them practice, or look at on their own. It's important that children practice this repeatedly while they are calm, and use it for minor incidents, before they will be able to use it well with major challenges.
     Another strategy is to help children learn to control their physical bodies. This is good for young children because it is more concrete than trying to control our thoughts or feelings. Playing games such as Simon Says, or other freeze games will help children gain practice with controlling themselves in a positive way. Then, when the situation calls for the child to stop what they are doing (poking, running, tipping the chair back, humming, etc) you can ask the child to "freeze" and they will understand what that feels like.
     Intentional play experiences also help children learn to control (or self-regulate) their impulses, because in order to keep the play theme going, the child must abide by the "rules" of the play - for example, if I'm Superman, I can't act like a baby. If I'm Mommy, and I'm pretending I'm in the supermarket, I can't do whatever I want, I have to pretend to buy things. The important aspect is that the child willingly submits to these rules, without adult coercion. They learn the value of having rules and following the group ideas. The best type of play themes to encourage this self-regulation are those which have many interrelated characters (playing house, superheroes, doctor's office, and so on). The Tools of the Mind curriculum emphasizes this aspect of self-regulation in a very effective way.
     My last suggestion, also from Tools of the Mind, is to use concrete mediators. This means using signs or symbols to help children know what behavior they should be using. For example, if children are using think-pair-share, one child holds a picture of an ear, telling him that it's his turn to listen. The other child holds a picture of  mouth, showing it's her turn to talk. Likewise, using lines on the floor to help children know where to stand when lining up, or putting mats on the carpet at Circle Time to show children their personal space will help them gain the control they might not yet have on their own.

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