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New Study Reaffirms Marshmallow Experiment Findings On Self-Control

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I often write about strategies to help students develop more self-control and how important that is to their future (and my book shares specific lessons on how I do that).

Dr. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment is integral to lots of those writings, and there have been plenty of studies that have supported his findings.

Another one just came out . Relations between preschool attention span-persistence and age 25 educational outcomes found (this next quotation is from an article reporting on the study — the research itself is behind a paywall):

Young children who are able to pay attention and persist with a task have a 50 percent greater chance of completing college, according to a new study at Oregon State University.

Tracking a group of 430 preschool-age children, the study gives compelling evidence that social and behavioral skills, such as paying attention, following directions and completing a task may be even more crucial than academic abilities.

And the good news for parents and educators, the researchers said, is that attention and persistence skills are malleable and can be taught.

I did purchase access to the study, and that excerpt is a good summary (in fact, I’d encourage you to go to the report on the study and read it all — it’s good). I was struck by a few things in reviewing the study itself:

First, I appreciated a paragraph in it that tried to explain — in a common sense way — the cause of the negative long-term consequences to young children who don’t show self-control:

According to this view, children with poor self-regulation have difficulty navigating classroom settings, which can lead to teachers becoming frustrated and expecting poor behavior and school performance from these children, which can then lead to children having poor perceptions of themselves as students. Over time, this pattern can lead children to be increasingly disengaged from school and to experience academic failure as they get older. Although we did not directly measure teacher–child relationships or children’s disengagement from school, the results from the present study support this possibility and suggest that children’s ability to focus their attention span-persistence, attend to relevant information, and persist through difficulty, can be very helpful as they progress through school and into early adulthood, compared to children with poor attention span-persistence skills

I was surprised, though, that they don’t appear to acknowledge (maybe they do and I just missed it) that Professor James Heckman has found that adolescence is also a prime time when children can learn these skills — not just in early childhood.

Sharing these kinds of studies with our students is, I believe, an important responsibility that we have, as well as sharing Dr. Mischel’s comment:
its-not-simply-that-life-does-things-to-us-it

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. Larry,

    Have you explored the insightful research and work of Angela Duckworth? She is a breath of fresh air and she goes further than just confirming the self-control hypothesis and then leaving it at that.

    She notes that there is something more to it and she defines it as “grit”. That self control is but a start. However, many lose it over time and it is those who continue and endure/persevere that usually always obtain great academic and personal success….

    Links here on an old post of mine. http://ddeubel.edublogs.org/2011/10/12/the-1-quality-of-a-successful-student/

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