A landmark study: Can preschoolers wait?

A study done by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford in the sixties has long been a classic. But it takes on dramatically increased significance with the growth of our understanding of brain plasticity in the last two decades of neuroscience.

In this study, preschoolers were seen in a small room with their mothers. The experimenter put a marshmallow on the table and told the child he can eat it right away. Or, if the child can wait until the experimenter and the child’s mother return to the room, he will get an additional marshmallow. The kids had nothing else to do in the room but wait, no way to distract themselves from the temptation to just go ahead and eat the yummy treat now.

The majority of children were unable to wait the maximum time of 15 or 20 minutes, and ate the marshmallow. The average time kids could wait was 6 minutes.

The ability to wait made a huge difference later in life.

Here’s where the story gets interesting: the research team followed the kids into adulthood. They found that those who could exercise greater self control and delay gratification for longer periods of time had greater confidence, better interpersonal skills, higher SAT scores, reduced incidence of substance abuse, and many other positive life outcomes.

These findings suggest that “the marshmallow test” is ‘‘an early indicator of an apparently long-term personal quality’’(Mischel et al., 1988, 2011) that leads to myriad positive outcomes in life. A child who possesses more self-control can resist fleeting temptations to pursue difficult goals throughout life. In contrast, children with less self-control fail to persist toward these goals and thus achieve less.

Note a key element in the interpretation here: the capacity (and incapacity) for self-control is a “long term personal quality”. Implied but not explicitly stated here is that this capacity is more or less fixed. Long term. Either you got it or you don’t.

Now we know better: The brain is changeable.

Everything I have learned about neuroplasticity leads me to say that this essential ability to exercise self control and delay gratification in the service of a longer term plan – this capacity can be developed, learned, increased or grown through practice and training.

We know now what Dr. Mischel and colleagues did not in the 60’s – that the brain the constantly reshaped by experience. It is plastic, moldable, shapeable. This experience-dependent change takes place in neural pathways and in the broad connectivity of these pathways in neural networks. It occurs on many levels, from cellular changes in learning to larger scale changes in neural activiation and coordination due to highly repetitive (expert) experience.

This fascinating story of neuroplasticity is described in several great books, including:

  • Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. by Sharon Begley
  • The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley
  • The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

Up until recently, there was a very wide consensus that brain structure is relatively fixed after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by a long and consistent stream of findings from neuroscience showing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.

What we know about neuroplasticity suggests that it should be possible to build/develop/grow/increase this critical factor of self control through intentional practice and training. Our kids spend hours in school learning how to read and write. What’s more important – the capacity for self control or the capacity for cursive writing?

Training self control: Preschool LEAP

At the NeuroDevelopment Center, we have developed a program for preschoolers with ADHD. It is patterned after a terrific study by a group of researchers headed by Jeff Halperin at CUNY. In this study, parents and children with executive function weaknesses were taught games designed to enhance self control control, working memory, attention, visuospatial abilities, planning, and motor skills. Parents played these games with their children at least 30 to 45 minutes a day, some for 5 weeks and some for 8.

The results of the study showed significant improvement in ADHD severity from pre- to post-treatment. This improvement was still present three months later.

Think about it: 5 or 8 weeks of parents playing enjoyable games with preschoolers with ADHD resulted in lasting improvement in ADHD symptoms. Now of course this is an early study. There were no control groups. So no big claims can be made yet. But this finding is consistent with what we now know about the brain – that characteristics once believed to be “long term personal qualities” may be alterable through repetitive experience and training.

Our program is called the Preschool LEAP Program. We will combine education about ADHD and the brain and training in behavior management and best parenting practices for kids with ADHD with the same types of activities used in the CUNY study.

We will have parents practice the marshmallow test. Frequently. If they can only delay for 5 minutes the first time, then OK, that’s a start. Now lets try for 6 minutes. And more.

We are confident that kids can learn to win the marshmallow test with this sort of training and practice. Then they will be able to win in life.