Self-Control and the Link to Academic Success

June 14, 2010 at 10:36 pm 2 comments

Marshmallow TestAs parents, we want to do whatever we can to help our children succeed academically, and more importantly, in life.  In fact, there is one teachable skill that is a better predictor of academic performance than IQ.  That skill is self control, and specifically, the ability to redirect attention in order to delay gratification.  In a nut-shell: raw smarts matter, but so do preparation and focus.  Consider the kids who study on the night before a test rather than playing video games.

You may have heard of the “marshmallow test” that laid the foundation for research on delayed gratification.  Dr. Walter Mischel studied four year-olds at Stanford University in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has followed these children throughout their lives.  The famous test left a four year-old in a room with a marshmallow and a bell.  Whenever the child wanted, she could ring the bell and eat the marshmallow.  However, if she could wait about fifteen minutes for the researcher to return, she would get two marshmallows.

Mischel found that the children who focused on the marshmallows were least likely to successfully wait, whereas those who could distract themselves and focus on something – anything – else, were more likely to be among the approximately 30% who were rewarded with two marshmallows after waiting.  The trick was in directing attention elsewhere: singing songs, looking away, etc.

Mischel’s results are most famous for their predictive powers.  As the New Yorker explained in May, 2009,

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Additional research from Mischel and his team found that toddlers as young as nineteen months displayed similar behaviors when separated briefly from their mothers.  Some babies were able to self-soothe by distracting themselves, while others immediately cried.  When these same children were given the marshmallow test when they were five, the kids who cried as toddlers also also tended to be the five year olds who could not delay gratification and ate the marshmallow.

Interestingly, children seem to be able to relatively easily learn how to master their marshmallow impulses. The researchers taught mental tricks such as imagining that the marshmallow was a cloud or a picture surrounded by an imaginary frame.  These mental alternatives allowed many “low delayer” kids to withstand the full length of the experiment.  The same New Yorker article quoted Mischel: “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

Recommendations for Parents

  • Encourage your kids to practice self-control at home.  Create habits that force some waiting, and reward that behavior.  Examples include saving allowance, waiting until Christmas morning to open presents, waiting to start eating dinner until everyone is seated, enjoying Halloween treats over time, etc.
  • In her book, Mind in the Making, Ellen Gallinsky recommends exercises that reward and develop focus, such as playing Opposite Simon Says where the kids do the opposite of what the leader says and does.

Entry filed under: Emotional Intelligence, Research. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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