How teaching a child delayed gratification can improve test scores

In the 1970s, an American psychologist, Walter Mischel, conducted an experiment with 4-year-olds. He presented them with a marshmallow and told them if they ate it immediately they wouldn’t get another. However, if they waited ‘a few minutes’ (15 in total) while he was out the room, they would receive a second marshmallow to eat when he got back. Two out of three children couldn’t resist and ate the marshmallow before he came back. An interview with Mischel explains it in greater detail: This YouTube video shows recent examples of this experiment:

Fourteen years later, he followed up with these children and found an interesting difference between those children who were able to delay their gratification (through self-discipline) for a greater future reward and those that couldn’t wait. Those that were able to resist the immediate gratification:

  • achieved higher SAT scores
  • had higher educational attainment
  • were better able to cope emotionally with life’s pressures

Before age 4, children’s brains have not yet developed the cognitive ability to delay gratification, but from age 4, this is a skill that should start to develop.

We know that this skill can be taught to children by giving them strategies to help. So, what can you do to help your child to develop the skill of delaying gratification? We have suggested a few strategies you can try (if you don’t do so already):

  • De-emphasise the rewards for completed work – thinking about the reward can lead to a child being distracted from the task by obsessing about the reward.
  • Be as positive as you can about the learning process – even if doing homework was a ‘chore’ for you, turning it into something positive for your child will help them to be focused on the task at hand.
  • Focus on the ‘cognitive’ skills they are developing, rather than ’emotional’ thoughts, e.g. wanting more screen time.
  • Encourage your child to develop positive self-directed speech. In the experiment, children who used terms such as, ‘I have to wait, so I can get two marshmallows’, helped them to wait until the researcher returned.

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