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Day 12: Terry Ainge, Principal (Delta Secondary School)

September 20, 2012

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. 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!

Terry Ainge is the principal at Delta Secondary School. You can follow him on Twitter @terryainge

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2012 10:17 pm

    Great questions! Coincidentally, I also listened to the podcast “This American Life” the other day and they had an episode based on Paul Tough’s book “How Children Succeed”. In it they talk to researchers who say that we should be teaching more “non-cognitive skills” (like delay of gratification) as these lead to greater success in life. Anyways, interesting podcast to listen to online or on your mobile device:

  2. September 21, 2012 3:52 am

    Thanks for your comments, Jonathan. The podcast you mention is worth checking out. Very interesting when one compares graduation to GED. Really drives home the value of non-cognitive learning outcomes.

  3. Vikki permalink
    September 23, 2012 6:06 pm

    Thank you posing this question, Terry. Self-regulation is a critical competency for all learners. It is the deep, internal mechanism that underlies mindful and thoughtful behaviour and impacts children’s performance in all domains, from focussing attention upon, engaging in, and persisting at learning tasks and the ability to modulate and respond to both positive and negative emotions and the capacity to plan and follow through on goals. Regulatory functions become automatic, only after a period of intentional use. A child who stops playing and begins cleaning up when asked or spontaneously shares toys with a classmate, has regulated thoughts, emotions, and behaviour. Greeting others appropriately, getting along with peers, or following a sequence to solve a math problem always require an intentional effort.
    The challenge posed by your question is that learning should be understood as ‘contextualized’ by personalizing the learning environment. The immediate context for learning must be addressed through cognitive, social, emotional and biological domains. Instructional practices that are consistent and systematic and not limited to isolated lessons and activities help foster self regulation in the classroom. Modelling through everyday experiences, using cues and scaffolding to bridge the space between what a student knows and needs to learn help lay a foundation for the development of self-regulation.

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