More Than Just Marshmallows

14 April 2018

Author: Alex Quigley

One of the most famous experiments undertaken in psychology is the ‘marshmallow test‘ by Walter Mischel, at Stanford, back in 1960. Take a look at this short video if you haven’t seen or heard of this famed challenge:

Now, like a lot of compelling psychological experiments, it has made many headlines and proved an enduring story (but the science of replication has proven rather tricky). The backlash and caveats come thick and fast when you dig into the claims that children who showed the self-control of not eating the marshmallow were then more successful in later life. Indeed, interesting studies have drawn into question an innate sense of self-control, instead arguing how stable the environment of the test proved more significant that any notion of a internalised capacity for greater self-control.

And yet, our desire to better understand how to help our children, or pupils, to exercise greater self-control is no doubt compelling for every teacher and parent. We are all looking for solutions for helping our children to exercise self-control and to delay gratification. This may account for the success of regular educational innovations like ‘character education‘ or GRIT. We hear words like ‘resilience‘, ‘mindset‘, ‘GRIT‘ and we have a positive – but too often vague – sense of how we want children to think and behave so that they can learn successfully.

What helps develop our understanding of the likes of self-control and delayed gratification, is concrete examples and research just like the strikingly memorable ‘marshmallow test’. Happily, a new study of young children sheds new light on self-control and the place of metacognition and metacognitive strategies: Waiting for a treat. Studying behaviors related to self-regulation in 18- and 24-month-olds’.

This new study reveals how toddlers exhibit self-control and self-regulation when faced with tasty treats. This British Psychological Society Research Digest article describes the ‘developmental trajectory of self-control’:

“One hundred and thirty toddlers took part at both time points. At 18 months, 23 per cent of them successfully waited 60 seconds. At 24 months, 55 per cent of them successfully waited 90 seconds.

There was clear evidence of a developmental trajectory: most of the successful delayers at 24 months had failed to wait at the first test, suggesting they had acquired greater self-control over time. Going backwards was rare: only eight per cent of those who successfully resisted at 18 months failed to do so at 24 months.”

What proves fascinating is the strategies employed by children, that then typically developed over time. “Attention and movement” behaviours were displayed by the toddlers and these proved most useful for fending off the treat and delaying gratification. Behaviours like looking around at other objects in the room, or distractors like touching their own bodies. This “active strategies” of “effortful attention” proved valuable.

For teachers Рand parents Рof children at every stage and school phase, it is the concrete strategies to encourage self-control and self-regulation (managing your own behaviours and motivations) that appeal. We can easily skip forward and consider how the behaviour of the toddlers in this context is related to a child sticking with some tricky year 3 mathematics problems, or an older students revising effectively at home for their GCSEs.


Self-regulation: more than just marshamallows and self-control 

The term ‘self-regulation‘ can suffer the same issue as ‘self-control’: our understanding is vague and lacking concrete knowledge and practical strategies. Indeed, self-control and delayed gratification fits under the umbrella of self-regulation. Though ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ sits atop the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, you would likely struggle to find much depth of understanding beyond metacognition being a notion of ‘thinking about thinking‘ and self-regualtion as controlling one’s behaviours.

Happily, an imminent Education Endowment Foundation ‘Metacognition and Self-regulation Guidance Report’ is due to be released at the end of this month (with a comprehensive literature review following soon after), so we have the prospect of greater understanding for teachers and going far beyond the marshmallow, so that we can properly understand self-regulated learning in our schools, classrooms and even homes.

If you would like to find out about much more than marshmallows, at Huntington Research School we are beginning a three-day training programme on ‘Metacognition and Self-Regulation’, beginning on the Wednesday the 16th of May, based on the EEF guidance report. You can get tickets HERE.


Alex Quigley, Director of Huntington Research School

Posted on 14 April 2018
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