Executive Function: Impulse Control   


Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed., LPC-Intern


Executive function refers to a group of mental skills responsible for getting things done. These skills include an individual’s ability to plan, pay attention, organize, self-regulate emotions, self-monitor, and stay focused on tasks. The three main areas of executive function include: Working Memory, Cognitive Flexibility, and Inhibitory Control.

We are going to focus on inhibitory control. For more on cognitive flexibility refer to my blog on flexible thinking (https://heightsfamilycounseling.com/blog/2018/8/22/your-flexible-brain). Inhibitory control refers to a skill that helps children “ignore distractions and resist temptation,” which also includes self-control (“3 Areas of Executive Function,” 2017). This is extremely important for impulse control. Think back to when you were in middle school or even elementary school. Do you remember how difficult it was to not blurt out the answer to a question the teacher asked the class? I am picturing children squirming in their seats with one of their hands raised high, waving in the air, and their other hand covering their mouth as if to stop the words from coming out. Executive functioning skill development begins in early childhood and extends into the mid-twenties. Over time, and with practice, inhibitory control gets easier. Some children, particularly those with ADHD, struggle with impulsive behavior. This is because ADHD is primarily an issue with executive function. Understood.org provides a list of signs and symptoms related to executive functioning issues from the preschool years in to the teen years (“Understanding Executive Functioning Issues,” n.d.).

 Preschool - Grade 2

•Easily frustrated and gives up instead of asking for help

•Trouble following directions

•Frequent tantrums over minor things

•Insists on doing things a certain way (inflexible)

•Answers questions in a vague way

Grades 3 - 7

•Starts a task, gets distracted, and never finishes it

•Often mixes up school assignments and brings home the wrong books

•Messy desk/backpack

•Wants to have friends over but never follows through on plans

•Seems to focus on the least important point in a discussion


•Loses track of time

•Risky behavior

•Difficulty working in groups

•Frequently forgets to fill out paperwork/turn in homework

•Unrealistic expectations


In childhood, impulsive behavior can look like blurting out answers in class, interrupting others, an inability to wait their turn, and the like. Overall, impulsivity is a result of not stopping to think before acting. Here are three games you can play with your child to help improve impulse control: Jenga, Bubbles, Red Light, Green Light


1.     Jenga: This game requires strategizing, planning, awareness, and impulse control throughout play. Game play involves answering several questions about what will happen if a certain piece is pulled out. Waiting turns while another child pulls a game piece out also fosters impulse control—after all, you want to save the best piece for yourself without giving them away! (Wright, n.d.).

2.     Bubbles: Remember how inhibitory control included resisting temptation? Try blowing bubbles with your child and asking them not to pop the bubbles every other time. You can model this behavior too. While you’re not popping bubbles practices deep breathing or another coping skill for relaxation.

3.     Red light, green light: This game involves one person standing at the finish line calling out “red light, yellow light, or green light.” Red light means stop, yellow light means walk, and green light mean run as fast as you can. If the announcer calls out yellow light and someone is still running or red light and you have not stopped, you must go back to the starting line. This helps bring body awareness and teach impulse control skills because children that play this game must pay close attention to the announcer, ignore distractions, and resist the desire to keep running to the finish line (Corinne, 2018).



3 areas of executive function. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/3-areas-of-executive-function


Corrine. (2018). 10 fun games to teach kids self regulation. Retrieved from https://www.thepragmaticparent.com/games-to-teach-kids-self-regulation/


Understanding executive functioning issues. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/understanding-executive-functioning-issues


Wright, L. W. (n.d.). 8 fun games that can improve your child’s executive functioning skills. Retrieved from https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/learning-at-home/games-skillbuilders/8-fun-games-that-can-improve-your-childs-executive-functioning-skills#slide-2