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Can we use self-control for kids as a predictor of later outcomes?

Many people are familiar with the late 60s, early 70s study called the “Marshmallow Test” by American psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel. Mischel and his research team put a marshmallow in front of a child and told them that they had two options: they could eat the marshmallow now, or they could wait for a said amount of time and get another marshmallow. The experimenters left the room, leaving the child alone with the marshmallow.

As you might expect, some of the children in the experiment popped the marshmallow in their mouths as soon as the researcher left. Some were able to wait for a small amount time before caving in. Another subset, on the other hand, were able to hold out for periods of up to fifteen minutes for the researcher to return and give them their second marshmallow.

This range in gratification delay puzzled Mischel and his team. Why were some children able to wait so much longer than others? And what implications do we see in later years?

Years later, Mischel noticed a trend. He discovered that the children’s ability to delay gratification, i.e. wait longer for a second marshmallow, was a better predictor of later SAT scores than measures of IQ at the time of testing.

In a related study by Dr. Terrie Moffitt the children who showed poor self-control in their early years had lower paying jobs, more problems with substance abuse, and a higher likelihood of a criminal conviction 32 years later.

So how do we teach impulse control to children?

Self-control is one element of the neurocognitive skillset known as Executive Function (EF). Unlike IQ, EF is a trainable skill that can be molded in early childhood. Much of the research on EF and self-control interventions have come the conclusion that for intervention to be effective, training must become increasingly demanding as this skillset develops. This means that the key is to keep training varied, appropriately difficult, and novel.

Read the full article by Niko Steinbeis, Assistant professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Leiden, here.

Visit our Resources for Parents page for ideas on how to teach children self-control at home.