Whenever I tell parents (who don’t already know) about the classic marshmallow findings, often thy express some sort of “I hope my kid passes that test” sentiment. And there is an underlying assumption that because cognitive functions such as self control differ across kids early on and are super predictive of later achievement that these functions are immutable. But one of the clear illustrations of the new trustworthy experimenter version of the marshmallow test is that this function changes according to context!
So what does this mean for parents personally and for public policy more broadly? We need to think about developing self control rather than simply testing for its presence or absence.
This change in our own mindset cuts across SES; because only about a third of middle/upper class kids pass the marshmallow test as well… but that doesn’t mean that those marshmallow eaters are failures in life. It’s just a starting point. As parents, we want to create the environments and situations where kids can practice delaying gratification, controlling themselves, and waiting.
But as David brooks points out in his 2006 op-ed, this is easier for middle class families to do than low SES families. There are structures (beyond a parent’s control) in a low SES child’s life that might lead to a disruptive environment. And that might be why low income kids need more structures (in schools, etc) that can help them practice these marshmallow skills.
One recent effort out of Missouri is called Head Start-Trauma Start aimed at 3-5 year-olds who have faced some severe circumstances such as homelessness, family members’ incarceration/substance abuse/death, and family/community violence… all circumstances that are more likely for low SES kids than their higher SES counterparts. Needless to say, these life circumstances do not lead to the stable/predictable training grounds where cognitive control can grow and flourish.
Although there are multiple components to Head Start-Trauma Start, I just want to highlight one of their emphases: self-regulation. The focus is on helping children manage strong feelings by identifying these feelings, finding strategies for helping themselves calm down, and problem solving (to alleviate the situation that triggered their uncontrollable feelings in the first place). Just to give you some examples from this NYTimes Fixes blog, kids might have a “calm-down corner,” a place where they can gain control over themselves or use “breathing stars” as an external reminder of a breathing technique that generally calms people down.
It might seem like a program to help children who experienced trauma might not be relevant to non-traumatized kids but these techniques are also helpful when placed in a home or preschool context. Take for instance, the Tools of the Mind preschool curriculum (summarized nicely by Sandra Aamodt here) which is explicitly designed to build self-control. Kids at a Tools of the Mind preschool might hold up a picture of an ear when it is his/her turn to listen and a picture of a mouth when time to talk. As simple as this external tool is, these pictures help kids achieve behavior that would have been just slightly out of reach. Think of it like a cognitive step stool or training wheels.
Whether you think much of particular efforts such as Trauma Start or Tools of the Mind, the approach they have is notable because they are fundamentally guided by the notion that cognitive control can be developed! It’s not an intractable chasm between the marshmallow eaters and abstainers. Unfortunately, this simple idea is not reflected in broad public policy.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently put out some disturbing numbers. It has been public knowledge that minority students, particularly African-American children, are disproportionately suspended (at 3 times the rate of white students). However, the new report also shows that these harsh (not to mention ineffective) disciplinary practices begin EARLY: black 4-year-old children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but nearly half of all children who are suspended… from preschool. (Although race does not equal SES, black/minority children are also more likely to come from low SES families.)
This is disturbing because suspension is one of those disciplinary practices that does not think about self-regulation in a developmental manner. By throwing out young children with challenging behaviors, we are essentially saying to a 4-year-old, “you did not wait for the 2nd marshmallow so get out of here.”
My hope is that our minds are swayed by the evidence that suggests self-control is BUILT and we would build institutions on that foundation.