Marshmallows and Self-control: Theories on Thursday

Probably one of the most entertaining studies conducting in education is Walter Mischel's Marshmallow Test from 1968.  In that original test, Mischel took over 650 four year olds and videotaped them in a room with a marshmallow.  The kids were each told if they waited for the researcher to come back, they would earn an additional marshmallow OR they could eat the marshmallow sitting in front of them; however, by doing so, they would forgo earning other marshmallows.  The original videos from this study are hard to find, but you can see recreations of this study on Youtube.  There are so many Marshmallow videos on Youtube, I couldn't decide which videos were worthwhile to include - so I refrained.

(Photo from John-Morgan Flickr Photostream; Photoshopped by Jen)

What is so interesting about the study was what happened years later.  Mischel tracked down as many of the kids as possible, now high schoolers, and the results were dramatic.  Kids who had waited for the researcher to return and thus, earned another marshmallow (these kids were called the "delayers") showed less incidence of behavioral problems at home and school, less mental health issues and on average, a 210 point gain (over the non-delayers) on their SAT exams.

When Mischel tracked the kids down again in their 30s, the same was true.  The delayers experienced less mental health issues, less behavioral problems (like drug abuse) and the delayers had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) compared to their non-delayer counterparts.

What is it about waiting for a second marshmallow that is so powerful?

One hyphenated word: self-control.

According to Terrie Moffit, a psychology professor at Duke University, and her research associates's 2010 study, self-control is described as "having skills like conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance." When kids possess self-control, like Mischel's research examined, years later as adults, they tend to be better at managing their finances (like planning for retirement), have better physical and mental health, experience less substance abuse and less criminal activity and are less likely to be a single parent.

Are you helping your preK-12 students hone their self-control skills? 

Here are some tips:
  • Train your students to take ownership in the classroom:  Can they hang up their coats by themselves?  Begin their work without prompting?  Have freedom to use the bathroom or enjoy a snack when they need to?  Can students clean up a mess or spill?  Montessori classrooms, starting with ages two years and above, teach students how to handle all of the aforementioned.  Certainly, our high school students could be taught how to take ownership (or retrained).
  • Set clear rules and expectations:  Ownership is superb when students understand the classroom's policies and procedures.  Students can then work within those guidelines while enjoying ownership and autonomy.  If you have not spent ample time at the beginning of the school year introducing and consistently following the classroom rules and expectations, you missed the boat ...and need to dock and begin again.
  • Encourage autonomy:  Like Daniel Pink advocates in his book, Drive, we humans like to have choices and control over choice.  What are you doing in the classroom to help students be autonomous?  Read this post if you missed our discussion on the topic.  Students need to feel autonomy over the four Ts.
  • Read the literature:  Read books and articles, like this fantastic article from the National Association of School Psychologists.  Much is being written this century on self-control.
  • Teach HALTED:  Did you miss yesterdays post on HALTED?  If so, start there.  Many educational writers agree that a student must first understand how they are feeling to then know how to control that feeling.  HALTED is a start in this process.
I shall now exercise self-control and not have dessert post-lunch.  Instead, I shall ride my indoor bike trainer (as it is raining outside) as I am blogging from home today.  By the way, for all you cyclists, P has turned me on to this hysterical blog called the Fat Cyclist.  I swear this is me today:  "It is Difficult to Lose Weight When Working From Home."  Read the whole post here.  I almost spit out my lunch in laughter reading it.



  1. I see self-control as an ebb and flow in my 6th grade classroom. My students this year don't have it, but some years they do. It can be seen when they pack up to leave my room a full 10 minutes before teaching has stopped. I often have to tell them to put their books back in their desks. They are in such a rush to get to the next place, they aren't taking in their surroundings. I think the part "much is being written this century on self control" is telling. Decades and centuries ago there was very limited choice for children. School and chores - that was it. As we've overwhelmed kids with choices, we can hardly expect that the regulation parts of their brains have caught up with the stimuli they have thrown at them everyday.

    Elise T.

  2. I think if it were me, I would eat it. I would rationalize this because, "well, if i eat it I won't get another one and I don't NEED another one, so yeah, I'll just eat this now.,yes, that's what I'll do." (five minutes later) "I wish I had a second Marshmallow"But I digress. I agree with choice and autonomy but this little old school part of me is very "You do what you are told to do", but still have fun. Somehow I want to set up my classroom that way. Where they wouldn't dare pack up while I am talking but of course they still love me because I practice FISH and am the best teacher ever. Hmmm. I will need to think on how to do this. The Libra in me sees both sides of every theory and I think trial and error and adaptability of my schema and the kids schema will work. Teaching is like parenting, you feel a huge responsibility. I agree with Elise that they may be confused that they get choices, then they don't, then they do!

  3. I love this! Teaching kids to be self-aware, have self-control and be self-reliant will all work towards building students up to be their best.Students should not just hang their coats up because you tell them to, they should do it because that is a great way to keep the classroom from being cluttered with coats. By explaining this you give students the reason behind the rule and they can now take ownership of it.

    Of course you know I love this because I tried it on my daughter (who is almost 3 years old) and she passed with flying colors. :)

    Emillee C.

  4. Teaching self control and self regulation is very important. Students need to be able to have control over their actions. Teaching this to the students will definitely help them in the long run. Ana V.

  5. I plan on teaching kindergarten and self-control is one of the big things I plan to teach. This post makes sense because if kids are taught self-control at a young age they can continue to practice it as they get older. Maybe the I'll do something similar to the Marshmallow theory.