Social Thinking Articles


Managing Impulsivity Through Self-Regulation

Managing Impulsivity Through Self Regulation

Updated: May, 2021
© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

We recently received a letter from an educator who was asking about her middle school aged student who exhibits impulsive behaviors. Impulsive behaviors are common among our students with social thinking/social learning challenges. The problem is that impulsive behavior is observed as unexpected behavior and can result in challenges in both functioning as part of a group, and gaining social acceptance by one’s peers, both within and outside the classroom. Plus, middle school is a time when our students become more aware of their social differences. They are nevertheless trying to assert their own independence alongside increasing expectations by adults and by teachers that they become more responsible and handle greater levels of independent thought, schoolwork and behavior. At this stage in social development, impulsive behaviors can often result in teasing and bullying by peers and cause exasperation in teachers who have to manage the student’s repeated disruptions.

Impulsivity is obviously tied to self-regulation (sensory and emotional). Several Social Thinking concepts relate to treatments that encourage the impulsive student to expand self-awareness of his or her own physical and emotional states. Developing strategies that build awareness of the thoughts and feelings of one's self and of others is the first step. We then relate how each of us responds to expected versus unexpected behaviors in different social contexts. Finally, we teach our students how to use their own awareness and knowledge of social expectations to develop self-regulatory strategies so they can monitor and modify their behaviors to meet the needs not only of themselves but also of others. To learn these skills, the student needs to identify basic emotions in the self and in others and expand his or her awareness that each of us has emotional reactions to each other and we have reactions to others' reactions (e.g., embarrassment, etc.)!

On top of this our students are expected to monitor their sensory needs and use related strategies to help them stay as calm as possible in different situations. The multi-channel monitoring and self-regulatory systems require processing and responding from many different inputs (physical, perspective taking, emotional), which is why the social experience taps so strongly into our executive functioning.

It can be argued that almost every “impulsive” student has executive functioning learning challenges. Hence, they may be able to describe what they need to do when calm but struggle in the moment to self-regulate adequately as they try to juggle so many regulatory systems.

Consider that most children at age five are quite skilled in managing impulsivity and this is one of the reasons why they are considered ready to learn in a large classroom (e.g., kindergarten)! The child who remains impulsive into his middle school years certainly is wrestling with a weak self-regulatory system. Explaining this to teachers and other adults frustrated by this student’s behavior is a start (e.g., the child is not just acting like a trouble maker in the classroom on purpose!). This also leads us to the work of Ross Greene (author of The Explosive Child and Lost in School) who states so eloquently, “A child would [behave] if he could.”

However, all of our understanding of a student’s impulsive behavior does little to help students function together in a group (a mandate of the school experience) so we also need to teach the teacher and student how to better manage his or her “challenging behaviors.” Our goal is to try to identify their root causes and work from there, rather than simply focus on extinguishing the behavior. An excellent book to guide the development of the team process related to managing challenging behavior is The Behavior Code (Minahan & Rappaport, 2012).

The Letter

The educator’s letter on this topic and my response follows. I brainstorm some more specific options for helping her student.

Dear Michelle,

I’m wondering what your thoughts are on managing impulsivity. I have a middle school student who has an IEP coming due. The student often has the best intentions (knows what kinds of thoughts he will give people), but still does unexpected behaviors (e.g., interrupting his teachers, repeating stereotypes he hears, and farting in class). I have explained to his learning support teacher that while we have gone over these behaviors and what kind of thoughts they give people through social group lessons these behaviors may still be exhibited due to difficulty filtering/controlling impulses. The student has received speech services since preschool.

Many of my students do well in my small group social skills group but fall apart in learning support classroom and regular education classes. I’m looking at revising this student’s social thinking goal (previously it was working on social thinking through looking at pictured social scenes and real-life experiences in social group). My challenge now is determining how to continue to help this student generalize more across the school day and try to determine what amount of a behavior is reasonable based on his levels of impulsivity. This student has some tick behaviors due to Tourette’s (i.e., eye blinking, head twitching). Middle school is tough due to students not wanting to appear different from their peers…the last thing they want is the SLP coming into their class working with them. Sixth grade isn’t too bad, but 7th and 8th the kids generally want nothing to do with me outside the speech room. As always, any suggestions are greatly appreciated!

My Response

Hi there! Here are some ideas based on your email:

Explore the book The Zones of Regulation which seeks to establish a system for teaching students sensory as well as basic social-emotional understanding of others to assist with the more global concept of helping our students develop better global self-regulation systems. Within her book, with my permission, she incorporates teaching about Social Behavior Mapping

Set up Social Behavior Mapping (SBM) type feedback in the mainstream setting and have the student or an assistant take data on the student’s behavior. Has he read the book Social Fortune or Social Fate? This provides direct instruction to students about SBM concepts.

Explore if there is a response to his unexpected behavior from adults/peers in his environments that may inadvertently reinforce and maintain that behavior. For instance, are peers encouraging the unexpected behavior, leading adults to swoop in with negative attention when he does the unexpected in a far more predictable manner than when he does an expected behavior? This would encourage the unexpected behavior since he is at least getting attention from others.

Are there certain tasks, situations or curricula you see more unexpected behavior? Even for students we consider to be “smart”, they can still struggle with the abstract or gestalt based concepts that need to be interpreted and responded to in the curriculum. Many of our students demonstrate especially problematic behavior when required to write paragraphs or more abstract schoolwork such as math word problems (See articles I have written on the ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking to learn more about this.) Keep in mind that it is important for educators and parents to assess the student's level of self-awareness in the moment he is producing challenging behaviors. If he is unaware of his unexpected behaviors it will continue to be difficult for him to self-monitor them. If he has then also work with him on developing motivation to self-monitor his behavior across situations. When you have him track data, only track what is realistic behavior for him to demonstrate. A student’s awareness that the behavior may be unexpected, as you know, does not make a student produce expected behavior reliably. (Just as you and I are aware of healthy food choices but often choose unhealthy foods to eat, even when we know it is a bad choice). His unexpected behaviors are what he is used to doing so they are his default behaviors. He has to be able to practice developing competency with the concepts and then be motivated to apply the newly acquired skills in other places at school. I have been working with students a lot on using goals and action plans to help them figure out the steps in taking their increased awareness and behavior out the door. At the end of this blog are some worksheets on developing and monitoring progress on action plans related to short-term goals.

You may also want to use Sticker Strategies type tools to help put visual cues front and center.

Consider developing peer mentor training to encourage peers to coach him in real time by making expected choices.

You may want to encourage the teacher to use the Social Thinking Vocabulary in classes to help all kids be more aware of how their behavior impacts others and themselves; it sounds like you are familiar with these lessons from our book Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School Age Students.

As mentioned, one aspect of self-regulation is self-monitoring our physical and emotional states to better understand how to stay calm. Tools include biofeedback systems that can be worn across a school day that provide concrete feedback of a student’s physical states (anxiety, stress). Teach him to observe the data and use calming strategies that directly relate to his social thinking goals in the class environment. Biofeedback systems that are immediately accessible across a school day (including newly developed apps) can help students to become more aware of their physical reality and better use strategies that maintain stability even when faced with harder tasks or more complex social situations.

It may be helpful to use more specific strategies to target specific behaviors, e.g., his blurting, etc. Break down each unexpected behavior and have him develop a hierarchy of which ones he is motivated to work on changing, why, and what he can do as a replacement behavior. And don’t forget to have him contribute how he wants to reward himself for doing the work involved!

I hope at least one of these ideas helps!


Impulsivity: Goals and Action Plans Thinksheet

Goals are things we THINK about.

Action Plans are things we DO to help ourselves accomplish our goal.

Usually you have to do multiple, sequenced action plans to meet a goal.

If you talk about your goal and don’t participate in the plans to reaching your goal, this is called “talking the talk.”  If you do work through your action plans to help meet your goal, this is called, “walking the walk.”

To help you walk the walk…

We have long-term goals (e.g., get a college degree) and short-term goals (e.g., apply to colleges). Short-term goals can also explore how to get rid of a specific behavior and what steps you go through to diminish the presence of that behavior.

For example, if you have a short-term goal to stop blurting, we need action plans to be aware of how you change your behavior to avoid blurting.

Goal: avoid blurting

Action plans:

  1. Think with my eyes to see how the speaker is talking to. If the speaker is not looking at me, then avoid speaking and do some further thinking.
  2. Is this a time where the speaker welcomes another person to make a comment (a teacher is allowing students in the class to ask questions), if so I can raise my hand while keeping the question or comment in my mind but speaking it allowed.
  3. Be aware that not everyone who wants to speak gets a chance to speak. If the speaker does not give you attention, even if you have sought it in an expected manner, then continue to keep the thought in your mind.
  4. If you feel you need to express your idea but you are not being welcomed to speak aloud, write your thought or question down in a blurting journal. Arrange a time to show your teacher or parent the thoughts in your journal, away from the larger classroom discussion time.

We will begin by exploring short-term goals:  Describe one short-term goal you and others would like you to work on:

Short-term Goal:

Now list 3-4 sequenced action plans you need to achieve to help you get closer to meeting this short-term goal. You may want to ask for help when writing these to discuss how you can list out a series of specific and defined actions to go along with your goal.

Data Sheet/Goals and Action Plans For_____________________________________

Short-term Goal ______________________________________________________


  • A teacher, counselor or parent should approve the action plan.
  • Action plans should be things you are capable of doing but that you need to work to remember when to do each of these during specific times.
  • When you review how you are doing on your action plans, choose a date (perhaps you will review them daily, weekly?)
  • Put an “+” on next to the action plan, on the date you are recording it, to demonstrate you accomplished working on that action plan.
  • Place a “-“ in the date box corresponding with an action plan you did not achieve.
  • Place a “=/-“ in the date box if you met it half way or half the time.

Action plans described:












Explore how you graded yourself on your action plans. Now consider what challenges you faced in doing the action plans. Explain these challenges as “roadblocks” or negative things you said to yourself that kept you from working on doing the action plan (self-defeating comments). Roadblocks/self-defeater comments/excuses:

Explore the strategies you used that encouraged you to do the action plan. How did you remember to do it? How did you self-monitor doing the action plan? What positive message did you say to yourself to encourage you to do these new behaviors? Explain these as: Strategies that helped you succeed (inner coach):

Explore what you are learning about your own learning by attempting to meet these action plans, which then help you meet your goal. Or what you learned about yourself when you did not really attempt to change any of your behaviors: What did you learn about yourself?

Revise your action plans as needed and keep trying!

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