Understanding Impulsive Behavior

Effective strategies to help address your child's impulsivity.
Ontask Podell Impulse
Shutterstock/Suzanne Tucker
Create a clear and consistent routine to help reinforce positive behaviors to counteract impulsivity.

A person with ADHD has differences in brain development and brain activity that affect attention, the ability to sit still and self-control. In last month’s article, I shared strategies for children and teens who experience symptoms in the category of ADHD Inattentive Type. Today, I will focus on strategies for children and teens who experience symptoms in the category of ADHD Hyperactive/Impulsive Type.

Here are some typical responses from siblings, parents and teachers about children and teens who exhibit impulsive behavior:

  • She calls out multiple times when I’m in the middle of teaching a lesson.
  • He hits me when he does not get his way.
  • She jumps off the jungle gym without thinking of how she’ll land.

Many people interacting with someone who exhibits impulsive behavior will receive their actions as aggressive even though their intention typically comes from a good place. In most cases, these children are looking for ways to connect, communicate and engage, but don’t yet have the skill set to think before they act.

This dynamic creates a disconnect between an individual who wants to be a part of a group and someone in that group who feels their patience is tested, their personal space is compromised, or their safety is threatened.

I have been working with an 8-year old girl who is diagnosed with ADHD Hyperactive/Impulsive Type. She is filled with so much life and boisterous energy, and I am immediately charmed.  

It’s our first session. I extend my hand to introduce myself and she does not take it. Instead, she tries a handstand. As she topples to the ground she bursts out, “Hi!” I utter two words and am immediately interrupted.

“Can I show you a magic trick?” Before I respond, she runs to her backpack and pulls out a handful of paper clips to begin her demonstration. I point out that I was in the middle of a sentence when she asked me that question. In response, she covers her mouth, apologizes, and does not stop putting together the magic trick. “I just really need to show you this.”

An interruption like this happens 11 times throughout the one-hour session. I know this because we keep a tally throughout the session as a way to raise self-awareness around the behavior. This is just one of many strategies we practice during our work together.

Below are steps you can try at home to support a child who exhibits impulsive behavior. Choose one activity where your child could benefit from an increased structure (mealtime and homework time are good starting points) and implement one of the steps below.

Step No. 1: Increase awareness of the impulsive behavior

  • When your child interrupts, have them mark a tally on a post-it. At the end of the activity, count how many tallies there are and discuss what can be done next time to reduce the tallies.

Step No. 2: Create and display clear agreements for everyone to follow


  • Body is in a focused and calm position.
  • One mic: one person speaks at a time.
  • Ask before making physical contact.

Step No. 3: Practice “focused work” for short bursts of time

  • Set a timer for 15 minutes of focused time, during this time everyone follows the agreements.
  • Then, set the timer for a five-minute break. Your child can share stories, ask questions and be physically active during this time.

Step No. 4: Create incentives

  • Create a reward chart that displays the agreements.
  • At the end of the activity, your child can earn a point for every agreement they followed and a zero for every agreement they did not follow.
  • If they earned a majority of the points, they receive a small reward.

Step No. 5: Provide opportunities for choice

  • During a structured activity, give your child three “Break Passes.”
  • Each time your child begins to feel distracted, he/she can hand in one “Break Pass” and take a timed two-minute break to release energy and regain focus.
  • Once the timer is done, your child returns to the focused activity.

Step No. 6: Look for the positive

  • Provide positive reinforcement when you see your child do or say something that demonstrates proper management of impulses.
  • Discuss the feelings that behavior creates and the positive effect it has on others.

Consistency is key. If your schedule does not allow you to try one of these steps every day for the week, then choose one day a week that works for your family schedule and make a commitment to stick to the plan.