Saturday, 21 April 2012

Of Marshmallows and Radishes: Self Control and Self Regulation

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel tested four year old children for self control in "The Marshmallow Test": the children were each given a marshmallow and told that they could eat it anytime they want, but if they waited 15 minutes, they would receive another marshmallow. An amusing video version of the exercise can be found at Very Tempting Marshmallow Test on Youtube. Researchers concluded that children with good self regulation skills were more likely to do well at school. In fact, follow up research shows that positive results on the marshmallow test lined up well with beter success levels in later life.

Recently BC Superintendents and Board chairs had the opportunity to hear Dr. Stuart Shanker discuss self regulation with Minister of Education George Abbott. Dr. Shanker is well known for his work on self regulation in young children at York University. He suggests that "there is a growing awareness among developmental scientists that the better a child can self-regulate, the better she can rise to the challenge of mastering ever more complex skills and concepts. In the simplest terms, self-regulation can be defined as the ability to stay calmly focused and alert, which often involves – but cannot be reduced to – self-control. The better a child can stay calmly focused and alert, the better he integrates the diverse information coming in from his different senses, assimilates it, and sequences his thoughts and actions."

Shanker's work illustrates how much work goes into a student's efforts to self regulate. The term "pay attentiion" was never so relevant. From a very young age the effort to be calm, quiet and focused costs different children different amounts of energy. Their relative success at attaining a self regulated state depends upon a number of variables. Recognizing and adjusting to individual student needs will be increasingly important as teachers roll out the 21st century learning agenda.

Studies on self control aren't just restricted to children. A study by Florida State professor Roy Baumeister, using adult subjects, involved glucose and self control. Self-control was defined as doing what you should be doing as opposed to doing what you want. Baumeister surmised that self-control runs off of energy supplies in the body. Using radishes and chocolate chip cookies, Baumeister tested the effects that food restrictions had on energy for self-control. Both food choices were placed in front of study subjects for the experiment, and each participant was allowed to eat one, but not the other.

When subjects were forbidden to eat cookies, but permitted to eat radishes, they spent less time attempting to solve brain puzzles afterwards. When they were permitted to eat cookies, but not radishes, they persisted with their attempts to solve the puzzles for longer. Baumeister concluded that a resource was depleted throughout the time the subjects had to exert self-control not eating the cookies. In other words, a person's sense of self control was depleted, and as a consequence, people would not persist in work on a challenge. One might wonder how Baumeister's subjects might have done on the marshmallow test!

Whether measuring self control in adults or self regulatory skill in kindergarten students, it is clear that learning is hard work. Recognizing and adapting to the challenging needs of both the children and the adults in our system can only help in the efforts to advance personalized learning and impart 21st century learning.

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