Skip To Main Content
Teaching Children How to Push Their "Pause Button"
Meg Bamford | Head of Miriam School and Learning Center

Slamming the door in frustration, running down the hallway, throwing an elbow during a basketball game, saying a hurtful comment, or squirting toothpaste all over the sink are examples of times when children speak or act without pausing. They lack the understanding of the cause and effect of their actions. As parents, it can be exhausting to help your child navigate through the consequences of their impulsive behavior. Most often, because things transpired so impulsively, children might not be able to tell you why they did something so obviously inappropriate. They also may struggle to remember what they did. Students who struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are not intentionally trying to be bad. Once they realize the impact of their actions, most likely they will be remorseful or feel bad about the situation they have created. If we aren't careful, they start to define themselves as "bad" kids.

In our family we talk about the need to use "pause buttons." I believe it is critical for our children to be successful in life. Inhibition is an executive function skill that develops as children age, but some students require more explicit instruction than others. Furthermore, this ability to inhibit, pause and think, before responding verbally or with action becomes crucial for children to remain safe. As a teenager or an adult, to make an off-color comment about someone nearby may result in a punch in the face, or driving fast can result in terrible consequences.

When our children engage in negative behavior, physiologically they get a rush of endorphins. If they are stressed or frustrated, those endorphins, though only short-lasting, provide a rush and relief of the feelings the child is experiencing. This is not something children do purposely at all. It is a chemical reaction that occurs in their brains.

Years ago, I learned about the importance of giving children about 5-10 seconds to consider the consequences of impulsive behavior. Behavior theory would dictate that the replacement feeling has to be stronger than the rush kids get by acting impulsively (even when the consequence is potential punishment).

I find that working with students on these ideas when they aren't in a heightened state is always the best course of action (aka don't wait until they are in trouble). The key is to help children visualize the positive consequences of pausing and taking another direction. For example, sit with them and imagine together the feeling of having a friend to play with after school, to have someone to sit with at lunch, or the praise of the teacher. Encourage them to visualize this specific feeling (or play this movie in their head) instead of an impulse like blurting out an unkind comment. Pressing the pause button, taking a deep breath, and replacing the negative behavior with a constructive comment will help your child develop stronger social skills and deeper connections.

I know it sounds corny, but visualizing the situation as realistically as possible can create a memory that can be as strong as if your child actually experienced the situation in real life. Be as specific as possible to help that visualization. Hopefully, over time, your child will develop the capacity to "push their pause buttons" and be able to allow themselves time to make a good decision about their behavior.


Wishing you a very happy holiday season! The holidays of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa this month offer a sense of seasonal joy, hope, community, tradition and affirmation of what is truly important. We long for family and friends to create sweet moments together and reminisce on times gone by.

Read More about In the News: How one St. Louis nonprofit educational organization supports students with learning disabilities (opens in new window/tab)