George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Marshmallows can predict your future.

In the 1960s, there was an experiment with marshmallows. Children at the nursery school on Stanford’s campus were placed at a table and had the option of having one marshmallow now -- or getting two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes while the researcher left the room. Children used many tactics to distract themselves while waiting, like kicking the floor, pulling their braids, and covering their eyes. Only about 30 percent of the children could hold out long enough to get the reward. But more importantly, it was found that those who could resist the marshmallows as preschoolers performed better in school later in life. Researchers found that self-regulation was a better predictor to success than IQ.

Why Wait?

Self-regulation is needed for emotional and cognitive development. It helps children respond to stress and challenges. And life has a lot of waiting. Waiting happens at dentists' offices, on lines at Disney, and anything relating to the department of motor vehicles. We cannot rush seeds to grow, babies to be born, bread to rise and caterpillars to turn into butterflies. If you want ketchup from the bottle, there will be lots of anticipation. These are things we cannot speed up. Yet our technologies spoil us. We get everything fast. We eat fast food, get fast downloads and text instant messages. We don't like to wait, and life is good.

But what researchers have found is that the lack of self-regulation in children has been linked to obesity, cognition issues, autoimmune disorders, poor coping mechanisms and cancer. Additionally, as many as half of the children in North America have poor-self regulation skills by the time they reach school age.1

Usually, we link IQ tests as the best predictor of success, so we track children based on their performance on these tests. But there are other, more important traits that can lead to success, such as persistence, patience and pluck. It is these other skills that allow you to overcome obstacles toward reaching your goal. As reported in the New York Times, researchers have found how best to train students in these skills: "Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure and disappointment."2

The data says that children on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are not developing character-building skills. The "haves" are protecting their children from adversity so that they never build a relationship with failure or disappointment. And while the "have-nots" are bombarded with so many "character-building opportunities," there is little coaching and guidance to help them convert tragedy into triumph. Additionally, the report in the Times says, being overstressed prevents children from being focused or alert, which are the ideal modes for learning. The character-building process is interrupted by stress, hunger, environment or the caregiver's inadequate responses. And that creates problems for the child at school, for the schools and, ultimately, for all of us.

The Benefits of Self-Regulation

The good news is that these skills of self-regulation can be taught and learned. They are not genetic traits. For younger children, the games Simon Says and 1-2-3 Red-Light are great ways to gain self-regulation skills. Self-regulation improves attention, motor control and control of impulses.3 As I note in my book, Save Our Science, STEM education is also a great way to teach children patience. Experiments don’t happen quickly, and they cannot be hurried. Growing rock candy takes time, but it is so worth it.

For success in life, we must teach kids to wait. Even though society pushes for faster and faster, human development cannot be rushed, and there is no substitute for developing these character-building traits. Teaching our children to resist temptation in favor of long-term goals is important for individual, societal and economic growth.4

So sit and wait, and reap the benefits of being patient. Be the tortoise, not the hare. Good things come to those who wait.


1Shanker, Stuart. "Self-Regulation: Calm, Alert, and Learning." Education Canada 50, no. 3 (2010): 4-7.
2Paul, Annie Murphy. "School of Hard Knocks: ‘How Children Succeed,’ by Paul Tough." New York Times, August 23, 2012.
3Mitchell, Alanna. "Part 3: How a Marshmallow Can Predict Your Future." Toronto Star, November 2, 2009.
4Casey, B. J., Leah H. Somerville, Ian H. Gotlib, Ozlem Ayduk, Nicholas T. Franklin, Mary K. Askren, John Jonides, et al. "Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Delay of Gratification 40 Years Later." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 36 (September 6, 2011): 14998-5003.

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Mary's picture

Great read! I think a lot of times as educators, we rush to get through lessons or have a time crunch. Because of this, we are rushing our students through the material and may be missing out on needed assessments. We need to set examples for our students on how to practice patience. One of the most important things I got from this article was the importance of teaching digital literacy to children. Because we have millions of connections with the outside world due to technology, students need to learn how to access the information safely and as a good digital citizen. That is where patience comes into play. Students tend to use the first sites they see, and if you ever analyze the sources, you can see how many came from Wikipedia. That is not a bad thing, but students need to see that by using patience and a good eye will make for better sources and potentially better information. In an article by Yoram Eshet-Alkalai in the Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, emphasis is placed on teaching students how to think non-linearly. I think that to be able to do that patience is required because it takes time to organize thoughts in a networked way. Students need to be aware that rushing will only complicate things because not only may their assignments lack what is needed, but they are also missing out on teaching themselves. Patience is a virtue.

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I would also add that the classroom is one of the few places where children get to unplug and learn these human skills (of patience, pluck and perseverance). Any way we can help them learn these skills in addition to the content is a win.

national institute fo play's picture

Self regulation is developed through authentic play. Mother Nature embedded play into all creatures to develop pre-cognitive skills, including social and emotional learning. When authentic play is hijacked, we have a similar situation as another survival drive being hijacked, the need for nutrition. Look at how junk food has sublimated the drive for nutrition. Junk play can also hijack the drive for authentic play. We better know what play is... and most of us don't.

Play deprivation has negative compensatory consequences ranging from depression to addiction proclivities, lack of self regulation, bullying and domination, obsessive-compulsive predilections and more. How can we teach a child cognitively when the emotional self-regulation developed through play has been denied? Play prepares and drives cognitive learning. Deny access to authentic play and the pre-cognitive nutrition that drives and feeds the prefrontal cortex is absent. Could this in anyway contribute to the one in ten children in the US identified as ADHD and the pandemic of over medicating our children?

Dr. Stuart Brown, Founder of the National Institute for Play, will be speaking at Stanford this summer at Cemex Auditorium on Play Science, sponsored by Stanford's Bing Nursery School and Bing Institute-- where the original marshmallows study took place. Bing, by the way, is completely committed to authentic play. This prestigious nursery school serves the children of many recognized names of Silicon Valley. If you ever visit, you will not see any technology for the children. They learn through play-- water, sand, wood blocks, dress-up with no scripted or branded influences to limit and restrict their emerging self organization through play.

MikS's picture
Second grade teacher from Nebraska

With all of the rushing that happens during the school day, what are some ways you have tried to teach your students patience? I think it is great that students in classrooms are for the most part "unplugged." I agree with Mary in the area of digital citizenship. This is something I have worked very hard on with my students this year. There is a pressing need for students to be more patient and I would like to implement any strategies I can in order to help them with their journey.

Ainissa Ramirez @ainissaramirez's picture


There are things in nature that you cannot rush. Perhaps you can have a seed grow in class or monitor the movement of stars and tracking them. For hands-on stuff, you can show how some metals lengthen over a long time (Solder from radio shack with a weight on it moves very slowly). In my blog, I mentioned making rock candy experiments which take a while.

I'll keep thinking of slow experiments, but I applaud your desire to encourage patience. Thanks.

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