Mastering the marshmallow: How infants develop self-regulation

By Mary Kate Gulick, Content Manager

This video recreates the famous Standford Marshmallow Test that made headlines in the late 1960s. During the test, researchers put preschoolers in an empty room with a marshmallow. If the child could wait 15 minutes in the room without eating the marshmallow, he would be rewarded with 2 marshmallows.

Stanford followed the subjects of the marshmallow test for the next 18 years. It turns out, the results of the test were pretty predictive of later outcomes. Those who were able to wait the 15 minutes were significantly less likely to have problems with behavior, drug addiction or obesity by the time they were in high school, compared with kids who polished off the fluffy nugget in less than a minute. The gratification-delayers also scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT.

Seriously? Marshmallows are a success indicator?

It’s not the marshmallows. It’s the ability to delay gratification, one of the primary components of self-regulation. The children who could distract themselves or exert their will to refrain from snacking had already developed fundamental self-regulation skills – and these base skills served as the foundation for continued self-discipline, focus, and persistence as they grew up.

What is self-regulation?

In their groundbreaking book, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Dr. Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips define self-regulation as a child’s ability to gain control of bodily functions, manage powerful emotions, and maintain focus and attention.

Self regulation is what keeps a toddler from eating the marshmallow, from biting a classmate, and from losing his mind when it’s time to leave the water park. It’s also what enables him to listen to the teacher, stick at it when working on a challenging task, and refrain from lashing out when emotions run strong.

In short, self-regulation is where character comes from. Sound decision making, work ethic, proportionate reactions, respect for the law, and responsibility are the outcomes of strong self-regulation skills. Adults who mastered self-regulation as children more likely to graduate from high school, are hold down jobs, and have successful relationships.

How children develop self-regulation

In much the same way that children develop other executive functions, they build their self-regulation skills by practicing them, challenging them, and consistently using supportive guidance from the adults around them during everyday healthy activities.

Mothers foster self-regulation when they respond to a crying baby with soft touches and soothing words. The brain learns that hard times aren’t permanent.

Fathers support self-regulation when they model it in ways their toddlers can understand. “We have to wait till after dinner to have a cookie, buddy.” The brain learns that I can have what I want if I’m willing to wait.

Teachers encourage self-regulation in preschoolers by having them sit on their hands so they’re not tempted to hit their neighbors during circle time. And when they show them how to overcome shyness and ask a classmate to play. And when they teach the class of 3-year-olds to sing through a whole song with hand motions. The brain learns that it can exert itself to behave in a particular way, and it will enjoy the rewards of achievement, inclusion and friendship.

All of these activities show perspective. Focus. Persistence. Will over emotion. These are the characteristics that employers are continuously saying they’re not finding in new applicants. It’s what’s required to make a relationship last. And it’s what’s needed to find success in all areas of life.

The seed for all of that emotional maturity can be found in the well developed self-regulation exhibited by 4-year-olds who didn’t eat the marshmallow.

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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Posted in Early Childhood

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