The Marshmallow Test & Teaching Delayed Gratification

Self-control can be learned

You’ve probably heard about the famous study conducted by Stanford University in the 1960s and 1970s. The study measured self-control in a group of preschool-aged children. In the experiment, each child was left alone with a marshmallow and told that if they did not eat it, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow in a few minutes. The findings showed that children who were able to wait and receive the reward became adults who experienced greater overall success. They were less likely to battle obesity and to engage in risky behaviors. Additionally, they had better SAT scores and more emotional resilience when faced with stress. 

Fast forward about 50 years, and students of all ages are steeped in a culture that is increasingly preoccupied with instant gratification. And while that may sound discouraging, there’s some good news. New marshmallow tests have been conducted since the original, with some variations and improved results. In some studies, researchers were actually able to teach preschoolers how to resist the marshmallow. 

That’s right – self control can be learned. 

Be that teacher, the one with the lasting impact

Set up your EVERFI account to help empower your students to navigate self-control in a modern digital world.

So how can we teach delayed gratification and show the value of waiting, perseverance, and grit? How can we encourage self-control in a world where our students have fewer opportunities to practice this critical life skill than ever before? We may not be able to turn off the noise of daily life or eliminate distractions, but we can use components of the marshmallow test in lesson planning. Here are some things to try for all three grade levels: 

Elementary School

Progress Graph. Set up a graph, chart, or a more tactile visual aid, such as a jar of beans. Fill in the graph or add beans to the jar when students perform tasks or participate in good behavior. I find it helps to start with smaller, achievable goals like anyone who turns in their homework can earn a stick to help fill in the class’s hundreds chart or any student who completes their designated reading time with no talking can add a jelly bean to the class jar.  Once the goal is reached, reward your students. Reward ideas can include no homework, a movie, or an ice cream party.

Elementary teachers may want to dive into the activities and video in lesson #8 on Growth Mindset from The Compassion Project

Use a timer. Timers help teach self-control by emphasizing structure and focus. They’re also great for helping younger students transition from one activity to the next, but are they useful for all ages? Absolutely. A timed in-class assignment can help your students to gauge their time management skills. And if you want to add a fun variable, turn on music and a movie to illustrate how much harder it is to complete an assignment when we’re distracted.

Middle School

Currency. Come up with a currency in your classroom that students can use to purchase small items (anything from pencils to no-homework passes). Many of us may already have manipulatives or mini pom-poms, but cost-effective options, like dried beans, will work as well. The bigger rewards should cost more and require students to delay making a purchase so that they can save for the better item. 

Assign a Challenge. The goal could be to solve a certain number of math problems or spell a certain number of words in a certain amount of time. Whatever it is, the goal should be a true challenge, perhaps even slightly out of reach. Let students know that they are not expected to reach the goal on their first try. Celebrate their progress as they persevere and try the assignment again the following week.

Get middle school students thinking about long term goals in digital lesson #4, Investing in You, from FutureSmart and the discussion guide

High School

Long-term projects. Plan projects that will take time to complete as a class. Students will learn to focus on the overall journey, celebrate small steps forward, and the gratification of hard work.

Teachers looking for a long-term project that will help develop leadership and ownership may be interested in this student-led project as a follow-up to the lessons in EVERFI’s Honor Code

Lessons in Social Media. Let students examine the consequences of impulsive and emotional posts on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. You can use a celebrity or a politician as a study subject. Discuss how things may have turned out differently if the person had paused before taking to social media.  

Use EVERFI’s lessons in Ignition Digital Wellness and Safety to help students explore a smart, healthy approach to social media. 

Keep in mind that any of these suggestions can be aged up or down with some adjustments. And once your students get involved, they might have even better ideas!

 

Studies have shown that self-control is a better predictor of success than intelligence. Students who grasp the discipline of delayed gratification will reap benefits that reach far beyond the classroom, including areas like financial planning and eating habits. By teaching the principles of delayed gratification, we offer our students the tools they need to build a successful future.

Be that teacher, the one with the lasting impact

Set up your EVERFI account to help empower your students to navigate self-control in a modern digital world.


Jen Fahey HeadshotJennifer Fahey has been a creative writer and blogger for over ten years. She’s recently had the pleasure of teaching preschool through elementary age children as well as providing administrative support to a humanitarian organization while working in Eastern Europe. Jennifer, along with her husband and their three children, are now happy to be settled back in their home of Boston, Massachusetts.