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Impulse Control for Toddlers & Preschoolers

Children don’t develop true impulse control until age 3.5-4 years of age. The kind of control that involves rational thinking where they can step back in the moment and think, “should I do this,” or “is this safe.” That said, there are behavior strategies and key words that children can be taught to help them respond to the cues to step back or have them automatically go a little slower into exciting transitions. It might not be coming from an inner rational thinking part of their brain just yet, but it can definitely be a precursor to that skill. Here are some strategies that I recommend.

Teach children these terms & concepts:

Wait” Pair this word with fun/exciting transitions. Use counting if necessary. “Okay, let’s wait for 3, 2, 1.” Here are some great examples of when you can teach children to wait:

  • When you serve them a snack, cover it with a paper plate and have them wait to take the plate off to surprise them with what’s under the plate.

  • When you are giving them a toy/gift. Have them wait to open it for just a few seconds.

  • When you are handing them a fun activity. A bucket full of water balloons, bubbles, etc. Hold on to the item and say, “let’s wait for our surprise. Wait, 3, 2, 1…Surprise!"

  • When playing a gross motor copying game. “Wait for 3,2,1 and JUMP!”

  • When building. Build a tower and have the child wait for 3 seconds to knock it over. If this is too hard have the child step back and wait for 3 seconds to either run and knock it over or throw a ball to knock it over to make the waiting part more rewarding.

First-Then” Constantly talk in this language. This helps set expectations and children can learn to anticipate what is coming next. Knowing that something fun is happening next can also help them be more willing to do non-preferred activities and teaches them the concept to wait for something that’s coming.

  • When it’s time to get dressed. “First we’re getting dressed then you can pick your snack.”

  • During play, have your child pick their two chosen play tasks and what order, then repeat it back to them “first trains, then ball."

  • “First brush teeth, then books.”

  • During turn taking “first Abby’s turn, then your turn.” If this is too hard have the child who is waiting hold on to something motivating (fidget, stickers, etc. and set a timer for when it is their turn).

The more you use this phrase throughout the day, the stronger the concept of waiting and anticipating becomes for your child. In addition it helps set expectations, which can make children feel safer.

“Freeze” This word is so important for children to learn at a young age as it can help foster safety when out in the community and is a great foundation to impulse control. Here are some fun examples of how to teach this skill.

  • Freeze dance. Play music and have children freeze when the music stops.

  • Red light-green light, with the word freeze tagged to red light “Red light-freeze, green light-go."

  • When driving have your toddler tell you at red lights to freeze and then tell you to go with the light turns green. Play a game where you all freeze in the car throughout the red light.

  • Balloon throwing—blow up some balloons and have the children bat at the balloons when the music is playing. When the music stops, say freeze and have them all find a balloon to hold onto until the music starts again.

  • Playing musical instruments. Build in opportunities to freeze where everyone freezes like a statue and then start playing their instruments again when the teacher/parent says, “go.”

If your child is still having difficulty with impulse control after age 4 and/or their impulse control challenges result in aggression towards themselves or others, then some underlying self-regulation challenges may be occurring. In those cases it is recommended that parents seek out an occupational therapy consultation.

Lexi Santos, MS, OTR/L

Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Owner & Director at Sensitive Solutions

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