Sunday, September 16, 2012

Calm, Alert, and Learning

In the 1960’s a Psychology professor from Stanford University conducted a now famous experiment to explore the control of delayed gratification in young children. The experiment came to be known as the Marshmallow Test.

In the experiment, a four year old child would be left in a room all by his or her self. The child would be told, "Johnny, I am going to leave you here with a marshmallow for 15 minutes. If, after I come back, and this marshmallow is still here, you will get another one. So you will have two." As you can imagine this was very challenging for a young child.

Dr. Walter Mischel’s study showed that only about one third of the children tested were able to delay gratification, that is, wait for the tester to return before eating the marshmallow. In fact, two out of three four year olds couldn’t do it. They had eaten the marshmallow before the tester returned to the room. Those that could wait, understood and exhibited what is believed to be an important principle for success in life and in school: the ability to delay gratification.

We all know that self-discipline is an important factor for success, perhaps the most important factor. Mischel followed the development of these children and 15 years later, found an incredible correlation between the ability to self–regulate (delay gratification) and success in school and in life. Now 18 and 19 years old, Mischel discovered that 100 percent of the children who were able to delay gratification at 4 years were successful as young adults. They had good grades. They were happy. They had goals and they had healthy relationships with teachers, other students, and other adults. In short, they were doing fine.

What he also found was that a great percentage of the kids that ate the marshmallow, were not doing well at all. Lots did ok, but many had struggled in school (some had dropped out), many had exhibited risky behaviors, and many struggled in relationships with others.

In his book, Calm, Alert, and Learning, Dr. Stuart Shanker, a distinguished professor from York University, confirms that self-regulation: the ability to monitor and modify emotions, to focus or shift attention, to control impulses, to tolerate frustration and delay gratification are keys to student success.

As parents and teachers we have an important role in helping our young people develop the skills and abilities that will help them now and later in life. How can we help students improve their ability to self regulate and thus be more successful? That’s a question that I’m looking forward to finding an answer to this school year!

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