How I’ve Worked With Kids Who Have Self-Control Issues

If your child acts impulsively, he probably has a hard time controlling what he thinks, feels and acts upon. In other words, he has difficulty with self-control.

For more than 30 years, I was headmaster of a school for kids with learning disabilities. A number of our students had self-control issues.

In school, these students were often inattentive, barely listening or talking out of turn. They got easily distracted. They were aroused by emotion. The result was frustration, impatience and anger.

I recall one of our 12-year-olds who struggled mightily with these issues. (Let’s call him Jed.) Less-structured activities—like recess, walking between classes and lunchtime—were really tough on Jed. He was impulsive and got overexcited easily. He spoke out of turn, and he sometimes overreacted to small irritations. Other children found him unpredictable and hard to get along with.

Jed desperately wanted to make and keep a friend. But his self-control issues sabotaged his socializing.

One day, Jed approached one of our counselors and asked for help. He said he would do anything to be calmer, less distracted and less impulsive, so he might find and keep a friend. After he reached out, we put a program together to help him manage his self-control issues in social situations.

Here are the three parts of the program that helped him the most.

A Structured “Lunch Bunch” With Other Kids

Since less-structured settings like lunch were a problem for Jed, he joined a once-a-week “lunch bunch.” It was led by a teacher or counselor and included three other students.

The other students in the “bunch” had better self-control skills than Jed and were generally pretty easygoing.

The “lunch bunch” created a great behavior model for Jed to follow. He was able to have good social interactions with other kids along with gentle guidance from an adult. He could also practice social interactions.

Videotaping and Discussion of his Behavior

During the day, we videotaped Jed interacting with other kids. We wanted to show him how his behavior affected how others viewed him.

He actually found the video fascinating! Before seeing the videotape, he really didn’t “get” social cues. While watching the video, he started to notice how other kids used verbal and nonverbal social cues (including lots of body language).

Seeing himself on tape was also a great way to start a conversation about how to react to different situations. We talked through times when he had tough interactions, and we brainstormed solutions.

Easy-to-Remember Behavior Rules

Another big help was to give Jed rules for how to act in less-structured situations. We used the acronym LAST:

  • L — Look at the speaker in the group to find out what he’s saying and what’s going on before you say or do anything.

  • A — Activate your attention! Pay attention to what other kids are saying in response to the speaker. Notice their tone and their body language.

  • S — Self-monitor. Resist saying something right away, and wait at least 10 seconds to “read the entire room.”

  • T — Take your turn. Only talk when it’s your turn, and make sure what you’re saying makes sense in the flow of conversation.

It wasn’t easy at first. But slowly, Jed started making progress. (It helped that he was part of the “lunch bunch” for an entire academic year.)

Eventually, he took ownership over being more reflective, less emotionally unpredictable and far less impulsive. Most importantly, he was finally able to make a good friend and keep him.

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