Veronika Bernstein

Challenging Behavior: Impulsivity

Learn about impulsivity in children with visual impairments and strategies to address the associated behavioral challenges.

Veronika Bernstein, PhD, Developmental Specialist in Perkins’ Deafblind Program, talks about the issue of impulsivity in children who are blind, visually impaired, or deafblind. She discusses the definition of impulsivity, developmental stages related to impulsivity, and strategies to address behavioral challenges and maximize the child’s educational experience. 

What is impulsivity?

Impulsivity is a failure to resist a temptation. Most forms of temptation are rooted in basic impulses such as hunger, pain, and fatigue. Impulses often come into conflict with environmental demands or long-term goals.  Just consider how tempting it is to give in to an impulse to grab a snack or shiny object, to run and play, to push and hit in violation of classroom rules. A hunger pang can corrupt the most dedicated dieter regardless of the degree commitment. Impulsivity is part of the human condition.

Are there periods in a child’s development when the impulsivity is heightened?

Yes there are. The periods of increased impulsivity are closely related to the stages in hormone development. The “terrible two’s” is the first time when an increase in hormones (testosterone and estrogen) makes boys definitely look and behave like boys and girls look and behave like girls. It is also the time when the child’s control systems get behind the cognitive controls. 
We are at the most impulsive in adolescence because of an imbalance between two brain systems – the incentive system and the cognitive control system. The incentive system, which is active when we anticipate rewards and punishments, overrides the cognitive control system. The imbalance begins at the pre-puberty, causing pre-teens and teenagers to become more attentive to rewards and sensation seeking. Teens spend less time thinking before acting. Excitement and sensation seeking actions are the norm because of the over-active reward system. However, you and your students may have different views on what is a reward. You may think that giving them praiseis a reward. They may think that the excitement of breaking a rule is much more rewarding!

Why are so many students who are blind and deafblind so impulsive?

A child with impairment of sensory functioning uses other parts of the brain in order to compensate for the lack of sensory stimulation. Control of impulsivity is helped by the frontal lobes of the brain. Overuse can have a positive or negative effect on the frontal lobes.  We all know examples of people who are blind and deaf-blind with very powerful control of impulsivity. These people are well organized, their life is well planned, and they manage their challenges are well. Unfortunately, the majority of children who are blind and deafblind need help in learning organization and impulse control because their frontal lobes are spread too thin.

What strategies might help?

Impulse control is the best learned by engaging in what is called Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT is a set of strategies that help people of all ages and all abilities to gradually learn to control powerful temptations by starting to control less powerful ones.  One starts with making a list of temptations from the most powerful to the least powerful. The second step is to eliminate, reduce, or schedule the availability of the most powerful temptations.  The third step is to develop strategies to control the middle range of the list. If not successful, go a step below. If successful increase the power of the next temptation.  It is important to take your time and go slowly.

Are rules a good idea?

Having rules is an excellent idea. In fact the rules are formulation or anticipation of temptations present in the classroom. The best strategy is to plan for “natural” consequences of rule breaking.  We use the positive behavior approach. There is no “rewind button” in life but you are in charge of a “reset button”. You engage cognitive control system that lags behind the reward system. You review the rules, you do role-playing, you engage communication, come up with step-by-step directions, check lists, etc. Just keep in mind that every so often, we all suddenly and rashly act against our own best interests (and common sense).
Ish book cover with an illustration of a child running with a paintbrush and text: Peter H Reynolds

“Ish” book: Drawing, estimating, and digital table activities

Image of the graphed y = sin(x) equation

Understanding Desmos: Sonification lessons

A young man who is blind sitting in the back seat of a car

Looking forward to moving out