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Can teaching kids to resist the marshmallow help pave the way to success?

January 8, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
When children demonstrate self-control, it's a strong indicator of later educational and economic success. But even for kids who can't resist immediate gratification, self-control is a skill that can be taught. Economics correspondent Paul Solman visits a school in New York where many low-income kids are learning strategies for discipline.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whether you’re 5, 15, or 50 years old, one of the hardest things to deal with in life can be exercising willpower and making a sacrifice in the short term in order to achieve something of greater value later.

It is one of those commonly accepted life lessons, but now it turns out there are more organized efforts to teach it to children. Our economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story, part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY, Teacher, KIPP Infinity Middle School: Clap twice. Put up your right hand. Put up your left hand. Put up your right hand.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is the KIPP Infinity Middle School in New York City’s Harlem, where, in addition to the three R’s, these predominantly poor fifth graders study character to maximize success in later life, qualities like grit and gratitude, optimism and curiosity, zest and social intelligence, and one skill above all.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: What is this talking about, don’t eat the marshmallow? Brittany in the back.

STUDENT: Self-control?

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: OK, so we’re talking about self-control.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, they have been talking about self-control since the first day of school, when teacher Leyla Bravo-Willey gave all of her students the marshmallow test.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: They come in, they have a marshmallow in front of them, and they’re looking around like, what? What is this?

PAUL SOLMAN: This is among the most famous experiments in the history of psychology, with implications for economics.

WALTER MISCHEL, Author, “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control”: In which a group of 4-year-olds were given one marshmallow and told that, if they could wait to eat the marshmallow after being left alone with it for a while, then they would be given an extra marshmallow to eat. Most eat the marshmallow as soon as they are left alone with it. But some other children are able to resist temptation.

PAUL SOLMAN: About one in every three is able to hold off. And YouTube is replete with videos of kids struggling to not eat the marshmallow.

So what’s the big deal about self-control?

WALTER MISCHEL: The big deal about self-control is, if you have it, you are able to actually pay attention to the teacher and to learn.

PAUL SOLMAN: Psychologist Walter Mischel devised the marshmallow test 50 years ago, running it on hundreds of preschoolers at Stanford University. Twelve years later, he found significant differences between those who had wolfed down the marshmallow — they were now found to be more easily frustrated, indecisive, disorganized — and those who, as tots, had been able to control themselves — they were now more confident, self-reliant and — get this — scored about 200 points higher on the SAT.

The powerful economic message is that if you do exhibit self-control at an early age, says Mischel:

WALTER MISCHEL: You have got a much better chance of taking the future into account and likely to have better economic outcomes. But the idea that your child is doomed if she chooses not to wait for her marshmallows is really just a serious misinterpretation.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because the real message of his work is that self-control can be taught, says Mischel, to even the most out-of-control among us.

COOKIE MONSTER, “Sesame Street”: Me get this feeling when me see the cookie on the plate. Me want to grab it, want to eat it. Oh, me no can wait.

PAUL SOLMAN: Cookie Monster’s proverbial problems have been made quite graphic in recent years by imaging studies of what Mischel calls the brain’s hot and cold systems.

WALTER MISCHEL: The hot system is the limbic system in the brain. And it is reflexive, immediate, emotional. So, in order to slow that hot system, you have to activate the cool system, the prefrontal cortex. The problem is that the hot system goes up when stress goes up. And when people are living under conditions of toxic poverty, those are conditions that create huge stress levels. And they make the hot system keep getting hot.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the earlier self-control is taught, the better, which is why Mischel teamed up with Sesame Street Workshop…

COOKIE MONSTER: Me want it. But me wait.

PAUL SOLMAN: … on a series of videos starring their guru of gluttony to teach tots how to delay gratification.

COOKIE MONSTER: Me can take deep breath. Me can self-regulate. Me wait.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it’s never too late to self-regulate, Mischel thinks. And so, in the past few years, his ideas have inspired schools like KIPP, a nationwide chain of public charter schools serving low-income students, pushing high academic achievement.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: This time ,we’re going to try to make a goal that’s very far away. Right? We’re going to try to make a goal around your report card.

PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, older kids have self-control issues beyond cookies and marshmallows.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: You are going to come up with everything that could possibly go wrong.

Joshua?

JOSHUA ANGELES, Fifth-Grade Student, KIPP Infinity Middle School: Talking to my partner.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: But you have to meet your goal. What are you going to do?

JOSHUA ANGELES: I’m going to pretend like they’re invisible and I can’t see them.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: Use your imagination. I love it.

Brendaly, can you share what your if-then plan is?

BRENDALY DE LA ROSA, Fifth-Grade Student, KIPP Infinity Middle School: That my family will be very distracting, and I won’t be able to read that much, and it will affect my grade.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: OK. So if your family is super distracting what, are you going to do?

BRENDALY DE LA ROSA: I will go to my room and close the door and put some headphones on, and then start reading.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: Give her three snaps.

PAUL SOLMAN: Both Brendaly and Joshua, it turns out, ate their marshmallows the first day of school. But both have come a long way since.

BRENDALY DE LA ROSA: For self-control, I just pretend it’s a rock, like a poisonous rock, and just…

PAUL SOLMAN: A poisonous rock?

BRENDALY DE LA ROSA: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: What does a poisonous rock look like?

BRENDALY DE LA ROSA: I don’t know. It’s like a white rock that’s — mold all over it.

JOSHUA ANGELES: When I come to KIPP, I realized that I — if I wait, I get a bigger treat.

PAUL SOLMAN: And his self-control strategy also works on another problem, his temper.

Are you easily annoyed?

JOSHUA ANGELES: Yes. Yes. Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And did you learn here how to control your annoyance?

JOSHUA ANGELES: Yes. I will just take a deep breath and just let it go.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did you actually take a deep breath?

JOSHUA ANGELES: Yes, but, sometimes, when I’m like really mad, I take two deep breaths.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Have you ever gotten so mad, you needed to take three?

JOSHUA ANGELES: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes? What’s the most deep breaths you ever taken?

JOSHUA ANGELES: I have taken five deep breaths.

(LAUGHTER)

WALTER MISCHEL: When kids get to be 10, 11, 12 years old, their temptations begin to be some of their own feelings, for example, the feeling of anger, the rising of one’s own temper, the readiness to hurt someone else because they have teased you or provoked you or made you feel bad.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so that’s why the KIPP schools are teaching kids as early as possible.

WALTER MISCHEL: Exactly. The relationship between good behavior, good consequences, bad behavior, bad consequences.

PAUL SOLMAN: Most KIPP students are chosen by lottery, regardless of prior academic record. Almost all meet federal poverty guidelines. And yet 82 percent go on to college, and nearly half complete a four-year degree, five times the rate of the average low-income student.

What’s happening to the kids you grew up with who never went to a KIPP school?

GEORGE RAMIREZ, Senior, Yale University: They’re not in school. They probably have their own kids at this point. They’re living a very hard life.

PAUL SOLMAN: Even among successful KIPP alumni, George Ramirez stands out. Born and raised in the South Bronx, a mediocre student pre-KIPP, Ramirez is now a senior at Yale, majoring in history and physics.

GEORGE RAMIREZ: I think one thing that I learned at KIPP really well is that a lot of your effort doesn’t reap any success until way later in the future. There’s another marshmallow if you wait just a little bit longer.

PAUL SOLMAN: KIPP isn’t the only path out of poverty, of course. Teacher Leyla Bravo-Willey also grew up poor, long before KIPP began, yet she graduated from Harvard. But she teaches self-control these days, sharing her own adult economic struggles with her students.

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: You know that Ms. Bravo has some issues with shopping, right? I like to shop and I’m trying to save money. So if, for instance, I come across a store that I like a lot, I — then I will pretend that store has bedbugs. Yes, then I won’t go in.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, do you really visualize bedbugs in the store that attracts you, or that’s just playing for the kids?

LEYLA BRAVO-WILLEY: No, actually, I — I really actually do. Whatever your marshmallow test is, there are always strategies that can help you. And we want to arm our kids with all the tools possible to be successful in life.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tools that even the most recalcitrant can apparently learn.

COOKIE MONSTER: But me wait. Me wait.

PAUL SOLMAN: Paul Solman in New York, and reasonably self-controlled, for the PBS NewsHour.

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