Preschoolers’ Challenges with Attention and Impulse Control: The Typical, the Problematic, and What We Can Do to Help

byAlison Gardner, Psy.D.

On any given day, and perhaps on many days, all preschoolers could be described as having difficulty with sustaining attention long enough to follow through with instructions and complete a task. It is also quite typical to see preschoolers engage in impulsive behavior such as frequent interrupting. These difficulties are considered normal in preschoolers because children ages 3 to 5 years of age are still in the developmentally appropriate process of learning how to control their impulses and regulate their behavior and emotions. The vast majority of these children will go on to benefit from the social and academic success that comes with learning these important skills. And yet a small subset of these children are experienced by their teachers and parents as having more challenges than usual with sitting for quiet activities, sustaining effort and engagement on a single activity, being extremely talkative and almost always in motion, frequently engaging in unsafe or aggressive behavior, or struggling to relate positively with peers and adults. Parents and teachers often wonder, “Is this just a phase?” “Will this get better with age and maturity?” “Should I look for some help for this child?” Some of these children will go on to be diagnosed with ADHD and others will “grow out of it.” Still others may have completely different explanations for their challenging behavior. For example, medical conditions, environmental and/or family stress, anxiety or mood problems, learning disabilities or autistic spectrum disorders can cause many of the same behaviors and symptoms that characterize ADHD.

Regardless of the “cause” or even whether a child will be formally “diagnosed,” research suggests that it is useful to seek help when the challenges a child is experiencing are causing significant impairment in their ability to do the important developmental tasks of their age. For example, if peers are reacting so negatively to a preschooler’s behavior that he is generally being shunned or rejected by most of his classmates, intervention is warranted. Similarly, if a child is refusing to participate in most preschool activities, getting expelled for aggressive behavior, or consistently failing to respect others’ property or boundaries, it is time to get help in turning the tide. More generally, it is important to identify when a vicious negative cycle is developing where difficult behaviors are creating more problems e.g., an aggressive preschooler who is rejected by his peers and in frequent conflict with teachers and parents is likely to also be experiencing blows to her self esteem and may develop a pervasive dislike for school, social isolation, and mood and behavior problems that are secondary to these negative experiences. In these cases, early intervention can serve to interrupt these negative cycles and start helping a child to experience greater social success, build real self esteem, and have more positive expectations for his future.

The following strategies have been shown to support the development of attention and impulse control in preschoolers. They can be helpful to all preschoolers in nurturing development along and are particularly important to implement when challenging behaviors are becoming worrisome. They fall into two categories: structuring the environment for success and the teaching of specific skills.

Structuring the environment:

  1. All children thrive on a predictable routine.
  2. Minimize changes and disruptions to the routine when your child is struggling most.
  3. Previewing the day’s events each morning with visual prompts helps preschoolers know what to expect and therefore helps them to be more flexible in engaging in each activity.
  4. Keep a visual schedule of each day’s events that can be reviewed before each activity.
  5. Have extremely clear and consistent expectations for your preschooler.
  6. Provide immediate and predictable incentives for positive behavior. An example of an appropriate incentive is offering a sticker for segments of the day when a child meets a particular and well defined behavioral goal (e.g., Tommy earns a sticker for AM, lunch, and afternoon segments of time when he successfully keeps his hands to himself and respects his peers boundaries. ) Stickers can also be exchanged for time doing a desired activity like time on the computer or lunch with the teacher.
  7. Provide short and appropriate, immediate consequences for negative behavior. However, parents and teachers should consider very carefully what type of consequence is most appropriate for each child as this may vary greatly from child to child. One example of a consequence that is likely to be appropriate is: Susie does not get to play with any toy that she grabs from another child immediately after the incident and she is told clearly, calmly and firmly that it is not OK for her to grab from another. For some children (but not all), a time out in a quiet part of the room for a period of time equal in minutes to their age, is a meaningful and effective consequence. When using negative consequences, it is important to also support the child in reengaging with teachers and peers in a positive manner following an incident. E.g., if a child has been aggressive, he can be encouraged to apologize to his peer, or do some action that has the purpose of making it up to the offended peer. A child who has been in time out should be warmly welcomed back to the group and supported in reengaging in a positive interaction.
  8. Try to use positive reinforcement as much as possible in order to avoid a negative pattern of interaction from beginning. E.g., a child acts out, is punished, becomes angry, acts out more, is punished again, becomes even angrier, etc.
  9. Provide frequent warnings for the end of the day and transitions within the day e.g., “In 5 minutes we will be stopping play and having lunch.” Then in 2 minutes give a similar warning. A visual cue such as a clock can be used to increase the power of this tool even before children have any idea how to tell time.
  10. Give one direction at a time using one simple sentence for things you would like your preschooler to do. Be specific rather than general e.g., “Please pick up your book” rather than “Clean up this mess, and let’s get going.” Try to have a child’s full attention with eye contact before giving any directions.
  11. Keep students struggling most with impulsive or inattentive behavior close to the teacher and/or place them close to a positive peer role model.
  12. Consider whether the environment is over-stimulating and provide a “calm-down” place that may be enclosed and/or include a bean bag chair, soft pillows, and calming activities like books to read.
  13. Provide ample opportunities for physical activity including giving a child an active job where he can both release energy, learn to channel energy, and receive praise for being helpful.
  14. Some preschoolers require a smaller ratio of adults to children to be successful including lots of one on one attention and support.

Teaching Skills:

Preschoolers can be taught strategies to aid in learning self control, collaborative problem solving, relaxation, and self reflection.

  1. First and foremost, it is important to stay calm and patient with children even when they are acting out and behaving negatively. It is possible, though not always easy, to remain empathetic (considering where the child is in their development, what comes easy for them and what does not, what they are feeling in the moment, and what you want to teach them over time) while remaining firm in the expectations, limits, and consequences that you have defined well in advance of any specifically challenging behavior.
  2. Pick a realistic behavioral goal you want to work on teaching a child. E.g., not blurting out during circle time. Be explicit and concrete with the child about what you want them to do and not do. E.g., “I know you feel very excited when you know the answer during circle time but I want you to raise your hand to tell me you have an answer rather than saying it out loud.” Don’t work on too many behavioral goals at the same time (1-3 is plenty.)
  3. Preview with the child right before you expect her to try her new skill, reminding him of what behavior you are hoping to see. Be sure to praise him when you see him engage in the desired behavior. (E.g., “I like the way you raised your hand, Tommy, way to go waiting your turn!”)
  4. Role playing and practicing the new skill also make it easier to learn. This can be done directly and/or with puppets or other toys/animals.
  5. Preschoolers can practice impulse control via numerous fun games that work on this skill such as Simon Says, Mother May I, Red Light Green Light, John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, and Hokey Pokey to name a few.
  6. Talk to preschoolers about whether their engine is running “high,” “medium” or “slow” and encourage them to reflect on whether their engine is running at the right speed to foster success in a chosen activity. Start by sharing what you notice. E.g., “I notice that your engine seems to be running a little high right now” or, “Your engine seems to be running just right for this.” (For more information on this concept, see the ALERT Program also known as “How Your Engine Runs.”)
  7. Teach preschoolers to visualize the steps in an activity before they begin it. This helps to develop a habit of stopping and thinking before acting. It also sets the foundation for learning to plan before beginning a task.
  8. “Self Talk” or “Private Speech” is an important tool we use to talk and encourage ourselves through a challenging task or situation. It also helps us regulate our emotions in a positive manner. For example, if an adult were in a minor car accident, he or she may say to themselves, “OK, stay calm. What just happened? Am I OK? Is everyone else OK? What do I need to do next? (Even though I’m furious that this person just rear ended me, I need to stay constructive.) First we need to exchange insurance information or call the police if it is more serious” etc. Preschoolers can be taught this same skill through a number of approaches:
    1. Narrating their activities. “Oh I see you are building a building with blocks. So, you decided to put the bigger block on the bottom, etc. etc.”
    2. Modeling the use of private speech for thinking and solving problems. i.e., talking out loud as you think your way through a simple problem.
    3. Encouraging children to talk as they think. For example, children could be encouraged to talk to a peer about how they would like to go about building an object before initiating this activity.
  9. Teach relaxation exercises that can be used to calm the “engines” or as a coping skill when a child is angry or anxious. Very young children can learn to be skilled deep breathers, a relaxation technique with great calming power. A fun way to teach this technique is through blowing bubbles or blowing up balloons.