What is the marshmallow test. In this test, toddlers are given a marshmallow. They’re told if they wait without eating the marshmallow they will get double the reward. Some studies have found performance in the marshmallow tests predicted later success in exams and work. The theory being the kids who could resist eating the marshmallow could cope with delayed gratification later allowing them when to work hard and resist just having fun with the expectation to attain delayed gratification/goals like good exam results success at work etc.
A new study (Bialecka-Pikul et al., February 2018) has looked at how performance changed and what factors made toddler better at waiting in the test. AT 18 months 23% of toddlers could resist the temptation for 60 seconds and at 24 months 55% the same toddler population were able to resist temptation. therefore the toddler's self-control was not innate, but they had learnt ways of resisting temptation!
What had the toddlers learnt? Well, the researchers found certain types of behaviours correlated with learning better self-control:
• Attention and movement- the toddlers might look away and touch their bodies (like covering their mouths) to distract from the treat. This was the strongest correlated action with improvements in self-control.
• Communication-talking about the treat and why it shouldn’t be eaten, to keep them focused on the goal.
• Interacting with the treat-like holding it and replacing it.
• Non-specific distractions – like fidgeting and making noises.
This begs the question if these toddlers learnt to be more self-controlled, is this something we can teach our own kids? Its obvious learning has taken place which implies it can also be taught. It may be that this is a particularly important learning period, and this can only be learnt between 18 and 14 months but given the plasticity of young brains its likely to be able to be learnt later too.
SO, what would being taught this look like for you and your toddler? I would NOT want you deliberately putting your toddler in lots of stressful waiting situations. However next time you find yourself in a naturally occurring situation when your toddler must wait for gratification (waiting for a treat to cook or a bath to fill or waiting in line to buy a toy to play with) you could take the time to demonstrate and talk through these coping strategies. You could say “let's cover our mouth while the cookies are cooling because we can’t eat them until they’re cool” or “let us put our fingers in the running water while the bath fills” or “lets talk about the games we’ll play when we’ve paid for your new toy”. Another factor that influences a child’s willingness to engage in delayed gratification behaviour is if their caregivers, do what they promise to do, not only for the child but also for other adults (Michaelson and Munakata, January 2016).
It has to be said that this learning is not yet proven to improve a toddlers future, but it does seem likely, given having these skills is correlated with better exam results and job prospects (Rayna and Wilhelms, August 2016).
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