Thursday, February 28, 2013

Preschooler Self-control

Choices.  Go for the impulsive smaller-sooner or the larger-later reward?  These decisions challenge us throughout our lives.  Develop self-control, and choose the wiser larger-later more consistently.  Just as we can see in our everyday experience, researchers find a host of benefits.

But we all know it's not easy.  Starting young helps, but how do we get kids to resist their natural impulse to grab?

In a new article in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, researchers at the University of Kansas checked out a few of the possibilities--for preschoolers.  One of the established methods includes a type of shaping process (called "delay fading"), in which individuals face the same delay to the two choices at first, and naturally choose the larger reward.  The delay to that outcome is then gradually increased.  Voilà!  Maybe self-control isn't so hard after all.  Another successful method involves teaching kids to repeat a rule about the benefits of waiting.  A third is providing other activities to help bridge the delay.

In their study, the researchers tested different forms of self-control aids that don't rely on gradually increased delays: (a) provide a timer, (b) include a brief rule, one that's not repeated, and (c) make toys available during the delay.  The delay to the larger reward was only 5 minutes.  Even so, in this case, only (c) reliably enhanced self-control for the children.

Psychologist Walter Mischel famously found that preschoolers who had more self-control in the "marshmallow test" (one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes for two) also did better on their college exams many years later.  Self-control matters.  So start 'em young!


  1. This is great! Matt Newquist was a colleague of mine at KU and I was lucky enough to be part of the research team and collect data on this study. Thanks for sharing!

    Amy Harper