Chances are you have heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment in which researchers looked at the ability of 4 year-olds to delay gratification. The 1960s experiment involved setting a marshmallow in front of the child and telling him or her they could either eat the marshmallow or wait 15 minutes and get a second marshmallow. Researchers have tracked these children over the years and found that the child’s ability to wait predicted their future success in high school, in college and even in forming stable families, marriages, and careers.
When I read this study years ago I immediately saw the connections for my classroom. Delayed gratification was the key to getting 100% of my students to achieve academically! I taught the study to my students and likened waiting for the marshmallow to choosing to study for the AP or state exam; not immediately satisfying but more beneficial in the long run. I made a poster with the slogan “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow . . . Yet!” for my classroom and passed out marshmallows on the day of the exam. My buddy, Melissa Barkin (whose beautiful classroom can be seen here) designed her classroom motivation system around this study; she put “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow” on all of her handouts and referenced the study often.
This month a new study by the University of Rochester added a twist to the Marshmallow Test (thanks to Melissa for sending it to me!). Children were given the Marshmallow Test after a series of experiences where they were promised a reward if they waited. Half of the children received the rewards if they waited, the other half were told “there weren’t enough supplies” or some other excuse and were not giving the promised reward; then came the Marshmallow Test. Children who actually received the promised reward wait on average four times longer (ex. 12 minutes instead of 4) during the Marshmallow Test than children were not given a promised reward. Researches concluded:
“Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay,” [study author Celeste Kidd] said. Self control isn’t so important, it seems, if you don’t think there’s anything worth controlling yourself for.”
As someone who teaches students from predominately low-income backgrounds, the implications of this student were as staggering as they were obvious. Students with a history of disappointment – whether from the harsh inequalities of poverty and/or the disfunction of adults in their lives – will eat a Marshmallow if it is placed in front of them because they have learned not to trust an unseen reward. This reality is so obvious and intuitive we have saying built around it: “A bird in hand is better than two in the bush.” If delaying gratification is critical for long-term success how can we help instill this trait into our students if life outside of school (and often inside school) is teaching them the exact opposite?