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One Gigantic Predictor of Success for Students

You may remember the famous “marshmallow test” performed nearly a half-century ago at Stanford University. (You can find an amusing re-enactment of it on YouTube)

student success

In the experiment, young children are seated in a room and a marshmallow is placed on a table in front of them. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and his team, then told the children they could eat the marshmallow anytime they wished—but if they waited 15 minutes, until an adult returned, they’d get two marshmallows. The results are entertaining to watch, as many of the kids just couldn’t wait, while others looked it over, sniffed it, touched it to their lips…but they waited to eat it.

The fascinating outcomes showed up years later in the early 1980s. Researchers tracked down those same kids as young adults and discovered the ones who were able to wait for two marshmallows at age four, had much higher SAT scores and better academic records at teens.  These results are sparking new thinking on what helps kids succeed in both school and life—and it isn’t always a high I.Q. Instead, its non-cognitive skills, such as the ability to delay gratification. In fact, researchers now say that it is “executive function” skills such as self-control, perseverance, patience and long-term flexible thinking that enables kids to flourish.

May I comment to you parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers?

While I understand our desire to improve standardized test scores, I think we have a large population of kids who’ve figured out how to take a test, but not how to make it on a job or in a marriage. Our children are not stupid; they are savvy to calculate what they must do to get by in a classroom they deem irrelevant. The truth is, our kids graduate and still lack the soft skills to get hired. According to two nationwide surveys, HR executives report a “skills gap” in the graduates they’ve interviewed. Most of their young job candidates were turned down. 50 percent of their job openings remained unfilled. In short, the jobs are ready but the kids aren’t.

To address this issue, the television show, Sesame Street, has gotten into the act. This past year, they brought on a writer to introduce “executive function” skills to the script. Appropriately, they chose Cookie Monster, to be their poster child for learning to delay gratification. Think about it—in the past, when Cookie Monster wanted a cookie, he got a cookie. Now, we can watch him learn to wait, and perhaps get two of them. He’s developing executive function skills, as good Muppets should.

I love it.

So, what can we do to cultivate these executive functions in our students? Let me offer a list I just shared at a speaking event I did for parents and teachers:

1. Expand the scorecard for your kids.

In addition to good grades, why not reward attitude and soft skills like delaying gratification, or grit or effort. Let your young people know this is what counts as an adult, employee or leader. Remember—what gets rewarded gets repeated.

2. Gamify the process.

Find ways to turn the development of those soft skills into a game or competition. This can be done with computers, points, prizes and laughter. As Mary Poppins said,

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.”

3. Give them “tests” (experiences) to learn soft skills.

At our house, we’d throw parties for our adult friends, and have our children help host them. They learned to greet adults at the door, take their coat, introduced them to other adults, get them an iced tea and more. It was a preparation for life.

4. Simulate the “grind” of adulthood.

Create ways to simulate job interviews, conflict resolution or discipline. One week, I asked my kids to think of two things they hated to do—and challenged them to do those things daily for a week. Chores or service projects can become a good habit.

5. Incentivize waiting.

Patience is almost a lost virtue, even in adults. It’s like we’re all pacing in front of our microwave ovens. So, when your young people want something, raise the stakes and offer a huge reward if they’ll wait two months for it. Remember the marshmallows.

6. Tell lots of stories.

I know you think kids are tired of you talking about the “good old days.” But I’ve found most kids love hearing stories of how we, adults, struggled to learn these same life skills when we were young. It’s all part of growing up.

I just got a call from a former intern. He had served on our team one summer, while in college. He told me he simply wanted to apologize for being so “immature” during that summer, and to say how much he appreciated the initiation into the “real world” he’d gotten from our team. Although he was very intelligent, he declared the summer experience was equal to his entire college career, and it had helped him thrive in his new job. He’s now a grateful twenty-three year old man.

He needed more than a classroom on his pathway to success.

 

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  • EG

    Tim,

    Thank you for your great thoughts on raising kids, but also as a young adult and looking forward to being a father, you mention some great way of becoming and being an example to our future children.

    • You’re so welcome, thanks for the positive feedback!

  • Katy Mumaw

    At what point is it to late to instill these type of “executive functions” into our children? Is it never to late to try? It seems as though many of these skills need to be developed at a very young age and practiced into adulthood; for best results.
    Thoughts?

    • natural_born_healer

      My son has ADHD, so his executive function is very poor. Some people are more inclined to have an ability for it, others not. So a big part is imprinted genetically – you can see that in the original marshmallow test, there are two siblings who couldn’t be more different. But you can always work on modifying behaviors, and with focus on patience, positivity, and (delayed) rewards, it’s never to late to learn. I have patients in their thirties and forties that are working on it right now.

  • Justin

    Tim,

    I came to one of your Habitude training seminars last year and it was eye opening. I utilize what I learned in my classroom whenever possible. With regard to this post, I can also see this in my classroom now. The students who are forward looking and can delay gratification generally show higher levels of maturity along with better performance in class. As a father of a two year old, I look forward to using what I have learned in your program to aid me in raising my son. Thanks to you and your team for what you do.

    • Wow, that is so great to hear. Thanks, Justin for your commitment to influencing this generation of developing leaders in your students and your son!

  • Master Graphoanalyst

    A child with strong emotional responsiveness in his/her handwriting will always “go for it” without hesitation; as an adult these people usually build in controls such as caution to slow down the “instant gratification” response, which shows in handwriting also. The “head oriented” child, as shown in handwriting, will be able to wait; not the emotionally responsive child.

  • Kiley

    I completely agree with your intern. When I was searching for my first job out of college, I contribute my success in getting hired 100% to the job I had for three years during college, and 0% to the actual education I received. My interviewers were glad to know I had a degree, but were much more concerned with what I learned from that first office job, even if I did only work 5-10 hours per week. I hope I can remember your tips from this article when I eventually have kids of my own!

    • That’s great, thanks for sharing Kiley. I do believe it is a balance between formal education and real-life experience. While we cannot solely rely on either, the combination of the two paves the way for an impressive job candidate.

  • Franjan

    Nice to hear someone put this out there! I was blessed to have been raised in a relatively conservative SDA home but now I am taking it a step further by homeschooling my kids and being active in our local church. Character training goes hand in hand with having a heart for God and service. I agree kids can be taught to “fake it til they make it” with going through the motions of an authentic adult before they fully understand everything. Great article and intriguing book! Bravo!

  • ken5206

    Awesome post. I have shared it will the Royal Ranger leaders in the Outpost and people in the church. Great stuff!

    • That’s awesome, thanks so much Ken!

  • Scout315

    I use the video you referred to (of the marshmallow re-enactment) in my freshman FCS class. We have a unit on dating relationships and this is excellent for that. The kids love the video and often ask to have it re-played. We discuss how this applies to school, to jobs, and to life. I couldn’t agree with you more!

    • I am so glad to hear that! No matter how many times I watch the marshmallow video, I laugh and laugh every time:) Thanks for sharing.

  • chaneden

    I love that you include actual suggestions for helping children grow in these abilities. So many articles tell parents what we’re doing wrong, without any information to help us do things better. Thank you!

  • Lexi Riley

    I really think that we, as teachers and parents, should teach kids good behavior outside the classroom. Behavior that will help them become good adults. What counts after you graduate and when you live in the real world.

    • I completely agree with you Lexi. It’s often the transition period where many kids struggle to find the independence and autonomy needed to excel in their job, relationships, and life. Thanks for the comment.

  • Ryan

    Great Article, very helpful

  • Jim

    Sports and music are some of the best examples of places where these kinds of skills matter. They are a lot of practice for a little performance and teach the kinds of skills that you’re talking about (when coached or taught correctly). Great post!

  • Ebrooke

    Thank you, excellent reminders. From an educator/administrator.

  • ErikandJennifer Johnston

    WOW! I needed this article! Our boys struggle in school because of ADD, but they have learned how to set standards and priorities for themselves and to never give up. My husband always says that we’re not just raising children, we’re preparing them to be men. Your list of things to do to cultivate executive functions is very similar to what we have been doing with our children for many years. Thank you so much for sharing this information, reassuring me that we’re doing the right thing and for referencing the research study to support the theory.

    • Thank you, Erik and Jennifer, for sharing and leading the next generation of students well!

  • Angela Cantrell

    There is an assessment out there which measures non-cognitive skills including all of the “executive functions” mentioned in this article. The assessment is the SmarterMeasure Learning Readiness Indicator. Since 2002 it has been taken by over 2.8 million students. It is currently used by 408 schools. There is a version of the assessment which is developmentally appropriate for students in grades 8 to 12. Recommended use points are at the end of the 8th grade as they are rising into high school and then at the end of 12th grade as they are preparing for college. http://www.smartermeasure.com

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