Recent 'Marshmallow Test' Shows Impulse Control, Other Traits are not Fixed

Michael Alison Chandler, The Washington Post  |  Updated: July 13, 2017 15:02 IST

Recent 'Marshmallow Test' Shows Impulse Control, Other Traits are not Fixed
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Four decades ago, the famous "Marshmallow Experiment" at Stanford University spawned a body of research that showed how an early test of children's ability to delay gratification - eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two - correlated with greater success and self control later in life.

But a more recent study suggests the impulse to eat the marshmallow is not necessarily innate. In the follow-up experiment at the University of Rochester, the adult who offered children the marshmallow first promised to bring them some art supplies. For one group, the adult delivered the supplies, and for another he didn't. When the marshmallow test was administered, the children who actually got the promised art supplies were more likely to wait for the second marshmallow than the ones who didn't.

The test showed how influential reliable, trusting relationships are to helping children develop skills and adapting behavior. The important role of trusting relationships was a key message at a foundation-sponsored panel discussion Tuesday in Georgetown about how schools can offer an antidote to the stressful and chaotic lives of many children.

Adverse experiences, including neglect, neighborhood violence, and food insecurity, can affect brain development and behavior - a serious challenge for many children in the District. But the stress they feel and the behavior it causes are not fixed. Psychologists and educators on the panel said that schools can offer a safe space for children to recover and develop important emotional skills they need to succeed.Stress can be divided into three types - acute, tolerable, or toxic, said Sheila Ohlsson Walker, assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Acute stress is caused by an immediate threat; tolerable stress can come from daily life, including hunger or violence, but is managed with help from a loving parent or responsive adult. Similar stresses can become "toxic" when a child does not have an adult or outlet to help him manage it. Such stress can make it hard for children to sit still or focus in school and are correlated to higher rates of mental illness, and post-traumatic stress disorder, Walker said.

Dwight Davis, assistant principal at Wheatley Education Campus, described his first year teaching fifth grade, with a seemingly manageable class size of 16 students. But, he said, some of the children lived with a lot of stress. He recalled outbursts in the classroom. "There was little to no work being done some days," he said.

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A turning point came when he started to visit every family at home and build up trust with the children, he said.

"The classroom is a difficult puzzle that must be skillfully put together," he said. "But first we need to create a trusting environment."

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