In a now classic, 1972 study by Walter Mischel at Stanford, children ages 3-5 were given a marshmallow and told if they could resist eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes, while the teacher stepped out of the classroom, then they would get two marshmallows. Follow-up studies showed that the children who were able to delay the gratification of eating the marshmallow for 15 minutes: had higher SAT scores, attained higher levels of education, had lower body mass index scores, used risky drugs less frequently, and were better able to deal with interpersonal issues in order to maintain close relationships with others. So what made it possible for some preschoolers to delay gratification, while others could not wait? According to Mischel, what is needed for self-control in any situation is executive functioning.
Executive functioning skills allow us to plan, remember instructions, focus attention, and manage multiple tasks simultaneously. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University compares executive functioning to an air traffic control system at a busy airport. An effective air traffic control system can safely manage many different arrivals and departures on multiple runways. Just as a person with highly developed executive functioning skills can control impulses, stay focused, delay gratification, and set and achieve goals. You may wonder, are certain children just born with these skills? Children are not born with executive functioning skills, but all children are born with the potential to develop these skills.
Executive functioning skills are developed when children get what they need from caregivers and their environment. Children are the most able to learn executive functioning skills between the ages of 2 and 7 and then again during adolescence and the teenage years. Adults can do several things to help children develop these vital executive functioning skills:
Carefully Select a Preschool
For young children, choose a preschool that has a play-based or child-directed model allowing children to learn to solve their own problems. Activities should foster creative play, social connection, exercise and physical activity, and teach children how to deal with stress. Growth-promoting environments also provide children with opportunities to practice skills before they must perform them and eventually allow children the freedom to direct their own activities with decreased adult involvement.
Create a Consistent and Reliable Environment
For young children and teenagers routines and stable relationships with caring adults are important to being able to predict their environment, allowing them to feel empowered to make plans and decisions for themselves.
Teach Children to Wait, Persist, and Practice.
Prioritize teaching children patience. Praise children when they wait or demonstrate patience instead of interrupting others or choosing immediate gratification. When children do not demonstrate patience, teach them by modeling the appropriate behavior you would like to see in the situation. When children do something over and over again, this practice helps them to improve persistence, concentration, and focus.
Model Appropriate Social Behavior.
As parents, we have to practicing demonstrating the behavior and level of self-control that we want our children to demonstrate. For example, instead of yelling at them or others when we are frustrated or annoyed, try modeling the desirable behavior by saying something like, “I feel very frustrated when you do not listen to me when I ask you to stop. I feel like yelling, but I am going to take a few minutes to calm down, and then we will discuss the consequences for not following directions.” In addition, make sure to draw attention to your child and praise them when they exercise self-control and model the social behavior that you would like to see.
Choose Activities That Promote the Development of Executive Functioning
There are many play and storytelling activities that can be done with younger children to promote the development of executive functioning skills. Older children should focus on developing what are traditionally referred to as study, goal-setting, and self-monitoring skills. See the following link for age appropriate ideas for developing executive functioning skills: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/tools_and_guides/enhancing_and_practicing_executive_function_skills_with_children/.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.