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.