Executive Functions – Is Your Child a “Marshmallow”?
Why do some children succeed in school and in life while others do not? Well, there are a multitude of factors that go into determining success but what could a marshmallow have to do with it, you might ask. As it turns out: plenty.
Back in the 1970’s a Stanford University psychology professor set up a simple experiment. He took a small number of children ages 4 to 6 and sat them down in a room one at a time. In the room was a table, 2 chairs and bell and a plate with a marshmallow on it. The psychologist then told the children that they could eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted but that if they waited until he came back they could have 2 marshmallows but if they couldn’t wait that long, they could ring the bell and the psychologist would come right back and they could then eat the marshmallow. He would then leave for 15 minutes and if the child had not eaten the marshmallow, he would then reward them with the promised 2 marshmallows.
The children were all video-taped and those tapes are still available today. Watching the children fidget and squirm to avoid temptation is sometimes quite entertaining. As you might imagine some children were able to “go the distance” and earned the 2 marshmallows while others were unable to hold off from the temptation and ate the 1 marshmallow. I guess for some of the children it was like the old saying goes, “A bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush”.
This was a study of what psychologists call “delayed gratification”, the ability of a child to postpone an immediate reward for a future payoff. Interesting enough, right? But the psychologist didn’t stop there. He then went on to track down these children, now adults, to see how their lives turned out. What he found was nothing short of astounding. Those children who were able to delay gratification in order to earn the second marshmallow were more successful than the children who could not resist the temptation—on almost every meaningful measure of success in life. They were described as more competent as adolescents, did better academically, had higher SAT scores (on average 210 points higher) made more money as adults and had more successful and stable careers—all because of their ability to delay gratification when they were young children. Those children who were unable to delay gratification had more behavioral problems growing up, had trouble paying attention and had difficulty maintaining friendships.
So who says marshmallows can’t make a difference? Actually, although it sounds so simple, we now know that a child’s ability to delay gratification is just one in a constellation of traits called Executive Functions which go a long way towards determining which children will be successful is school and later in life. Prominent among these executive functions is the ability to plan ahead, to stay organized, to manage time well, to initiate tasks, be goal directed and to assert emotional control especially when stressed. Lately it has become fashionable when a child is struggling with these issues for doctors to diagnose them with ADHD, medicate them and hope for the best. But even when medication is helpful, it is never going to teach them these skills. And when they eventually stop taking the meds or the meds stop working, you’re essentially back to square one. This is why it is so important to begin to help your child develop their executive functions, because not to do so or to expect a medication to do that for them is to squander precious time in their psychological and emotional development.
The moral of this story: be proactive. Get your child the help they need and not just help in the form of a pill. Unless, of course, you don’t mind if your child turns into a marshmallow.
If any of what you’ve just read resonates with you, consider setting up a consultation. Here at the Reynolds Clinic we are dedicated to helping children reach their potential, medication-free.