How to Use Interventions to Handle an Impulsive Student

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I have a fourth-grade student in my language arts bloc who is very impulsive. When his mom forgets to give him his ADHD meds, he is out of control. He doesn’t focus, he gets up and walks around, he lays down on the floor, and he shouts out. I tell him to sit down and get to work over and over and over. We have a card system. With no meds, he loses all his cards in ten minutes. I’ve tried everything. I’m out of ideas. -Jaime, Columbus, Ohio


Dear Jaime,

We are living in The Dark Ages of Behavior Management. When people refer to a discipline situation and they say, “I’ve tried everything!” I hear, “I have done, with great fidelity, a bunch of things that are guaranteed to make behaviors worse.”

It’s not your fault. You, just like me, were never taught behavior management in college.

That is the situation in this case. “Everything” you have described will make behaviors worse. For your average kid, they will make behaviors slightly worse over time. With this kid, they will make things drastically worse every day. When this kid has an off-meds day, he will become completely and totally out of control and will probably stop the learning of every student in your classroom for most or all of the day.

It’s time to start making things better instead of worse.

For years, I would have kids assigned to my classroom specifically because they had “impulsivity issues”. Those are sarcastic quotation marks. It was remarkable how these issues went away in my classroom because I used strategies that worked (see below), instead of strategies that didn’t work (see above). Telling kids what to do, pulling cards, lecturing and threatening are all going to make behaviors worse, and on a no-med day for this kid, it will cause an explosion of negative behaviors.

Once I see that gleaming off-meds look in his eye, I know I’m going to have to do twice as many interventions as I would have to do otherwise. As he approaches his chair to do his morning work, I sit on a chair right next to him in an assertive position (hands behind my head, feet out, leaning back, with a smile on my face). As he sits, I am already pointing at the first question on his morning work.

Kid stares at something that is very, very shiny.

Kid Whisperer (still pointing at question #1 and smiling): What’s next?

Kid: This problem. (Kid works for 15 seconds as I stay put)

Kid begins to stand up.

Kid Whisperer (looking very confused): Dude.

Kid Whisperer points down to gently indicate that it’s time to sit down.

Kid sits, stares at the shiny thing again, but then starts working once Kid Whisperer points to #2.

Kid Whisperer walks to the board to deliver some instruction. Kid immediately begins to investigate the floor, putting one knee down on his way to full “rolling around” status.

Kid Whisperer: (Whispered) Psst. Big man. Think, friend.

Kid, still with that loopy, no-meds-today-face, sits back at his desk and starts working.

Kid Whisperer immediately goes back to sitting with Kid as soon as he is able, and will do so whenever this is possible throughout the day.

If and when (at first, probably when) Kid becomes unresponsive to these types of interventions and the negative behaviors continue, Kid Whisperer will let the student know that there will be a consequence (not a punishment) sometime in the future. At that later time, a day or more later, the student will either practice using the expected positive behaviors, or he can solve the problems that his negative behaviors caused. The use of consequences will super-charge the aforementioned interventions. Without these learning-based consequences, this student will get the message that when he is off his meds, he is not responsible for his behavior. The consequences for this belief could be devastating.