Impulse control


I can stop or…

the ability to prevent yourself taking or continuing a particular course of action.


Impulse control is very much the business end of self-regulation – it is the skill we are often quickest to see in the self-regulated child and, conversely, what ‘hits us in the face’ when a child doesn’t have it.  However, impulse control is not just about getting on with others.  It is central to learning as it gives children a moment to wait and consider different strategies for such things as sounding out a word or working out what kind of maths sum they’ve been asked to do.  

Tim and Seb are driving the buggy car, playing their imaginative game. Soon there is a problem and Tim has to wait patiently while Seb gets out to investigate. 

Play is vital for building impulse control – children love play, but poor impulse control becomes a barrier to participation.  The best play occurs when all players have the ability to stop and wait for the other person’s response.  Babies first learn this in the give and take of early play with adults.  However, adults tend to be more tolerant of poor impulse control than other children do simply because a child cannot impact on an adult the same way a child can impact on another child.  So, in order to protect themselves and the game, children will exclude the highly impulsive child.  As children realise it is their impulsivity that is the problem they will work hard to change their behaviour.   For very impulsive children a great deal of adult help is required for them to reflect on their behaviour in the group and monitor and respond to social cues– but they will be open to learning as they see their acceptability to the other children rise.


Lack of impulse control is often a theme explored by children in imaginative play.  Their avatars in play often take extreme actions and consequences of those actions are carefully explored: ‘Well, my guy went into the poisonous water and now nothing can be done….he’s going to become one of them’. Imaginative play, like society, is heavily rule based, and imaginative play gives children safe practice in exploring impulses and consequences in a rule-based reality.  

© 2013 The Imagination Games.        Credits