Tips for Managing Impulsivity

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

Adapted from a blog post originally authored by Art Costa and Bena Kallick.

When you are working more in isolation, your tendency might be to just get the work assigned done. However, when you manage the impulse to take the first answer as the “right” answer rather than thinking about what is being asked and how to investigate the topic, you may find that you are thinking more deeply.

Here is some advice that is as good for kids as it is for adults:

  • When you are problem solving, you are more deliberate. You stop and think before you act. In fact, we often use the reminder: Stop, think, act!
  • You might intentionally form a vision of what you are intending to do with a project. What is the product you would like to see as a result of your research and design work? What is your goal? What plans of action will you take? How will you know that you are progressing on the right path?
  • As you complete a project, you could reflect on whether the paths and directions you took got you to where you wanted to go. Or, whether you took another path and it proved to be worthwhile.
  • It is the conscious act of being aware of your thinking that helps you to manage your impulsivity.

For those who are interested in the neuroscience behind managing impulsivity, read further.

Impulsivity and the Brain

The main purpose of your brain is survival and many of the structures in the brain are involved in making certain you do just that. Originally, these structures were designed to survive attacks from wild beasts or enemies. In contemporary society, the dangers are often not physical but social. However, the brain doesn’t differentiate between the two; the same mechanisms are at play whether the threat is real or perceived.

When a person believes a situation to be threatening, a number of changes occur in the brain: chemicals are released that increase heart rate and lung capacity, visual alertness, provide glucose for extra strength, and decrease all unnecessary functions such as digestion and immune function.

This biological response is commonly called the fight, flight or freeze response. All these changes occur in the neo-cortex of the brain where rational thinking and problem solving take place. It is also where one manages impulsivity. During a time of perceived threat, the neo-cortex becomes less efficient. (Think about a time when you were insulted and couldn’t think of a good retort until later!)

The upside of the fight or flight response is that after the initial reaction, we have a choice of ways to respond. For example, if while you are hiking you see a curved shape on the path that looks somewhat like a snake, you may jump and scream. A few seconds later you realize that it is a stick not a snake. At this point you send a message to your brain saying, “Calm down, it’s just a stick.”

The same thing occurs in social situations. Suppose your teacher, parent or friend says something you don’t like. Your immediate internal reaction is to become angry and the fight or flight response is activated. But seconds later you send a message to your brain saying, “I don’t think either fight or flight is an appropriate response here.” In this case you have the ability to manage your initial impulsive reaction.

Factors That Influence Impulsivity

Not everyone manages his or her impulsivity well. Examples are all around us: “road rage,” gang violence, fights. What makes the difference between those who have learned to manage their impulsivity well and those that have not?

Age: The neural pathways in the brain that lead from the rational cortex to the emotional center of the brain and give us some control over our reactions and are not in place at birth. As the child matures, these pathways become more efficient and the child’s responses become more appropriate. Full biological maturation of these pathways often does not occur until persons are in their mid 20s.

Experience: If the only response to anger a child experiences is lashing out, then it is likely that the child’s brain will become “wired” to lash out. If delaying gratification is not modeled or expected of children, they are likely to do the first thing that comes to mind.

The brain, however, has amazing plasticity and this is good news! It suggests that we can continue to learn ways to manage our impulsive behaviors throughout our lifetimes as well as feel a little more in control as many of us are facing tremendous global uncertainty about our health, our community, and our institutions.

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