When people talk about the keys to success these days, they often end up talking about marshmallows.
They’re referring to the “Marshmallow Test.” Researchers at Stanford presented preschoolers with one marshmallow, telling them that they could either eat it right away or wait for several minutes; if they waited, they’d receive a second marshmallow as a reward for their patience. The researcher then left the room and watched to see which kids could delay their sweet gratification and which could not.
When these children were followed into adolescence, it turned out that those who were able to wait had fewer behavior problems in school, engaged in less risky behaviors (such as drug use), and had better SAT scores. But what about the kids who couldn’t wait? Despite the wide reach of the Stanford study, it never answered the burning question that those of us who teach or parent young children have: What can we do to help the children who just can’t resist the marshmallows?
That’s the question tackled in a new paper published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. Rachel Razza and her colleagues explored whether young children could build self-regulation skills by learning to practice mindfulness—the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings—as taught through a program called YogaKids, which uses a blend of yoga and mindfulness practices in kid-friendly ways.
At the beginning of the school year, they tested children in two ethnically diverse preschool classrooms on their self-regulation skills and asked their parents about how well the children demonstrated these skills at home.
The teacher in one of the classrooms was trained in the YogaKids curriculum, which she wove into activities throughout the school day. For instance, children did sun salutations during morning meetings and practiced regulated breathing—such as counting in and out for five seconds while breathing deeply—during tricky transitions. They did activities like these for an average of 10-30 minutes a day, over a period of about six months. Children in the second classroom experienced “business as usual,” participating in no YogaKids activities.
Although the two groups started out with similar self-regulation skills, by the end of the school year the children who had been practicing mindfulness were less impulsive and better able to wait for a potential reward—in other words, they became more like the kids who could wait for that second treat in the Marshmallow Test. They were also better able to sustain attention on certain exercises the researchers did with them, such as drawing and tapping games.
What’s more, the program had the strongest effect on the children whose self-regulation skills were the weakest at the beginning of the year: Children who needed these skills the most benefited the most from having the chance to learn and practice them.
Although children in the YogaKids classroom improved on the researchers’ tasks, self-regulation at home did not differ between the two classrooms, according to reports from parents. It may be that children need to practice these routines at home, as well as in school, in order for them to have the broadest impact.
So what do these findings mean for young children—and the adults in their lives?
The results suggest that it’s possible to enhance children’s self-regulation through our daily interactions with them, even if we can only commit to a few minutes each day. Children who struggle to wait their turn, calm themselves down, or follow rules are not destined for a life of difficulties; instead, research is identifying positive tools they can use to build their behavioral and emotional control—which, evidence suggests, will set them on a better life trajectory.
Of course, more studies will shed light on the what, how, and when of developing self-regulation. But for those of us who lie awake at night worrying about the kids who can’t resist the marshmallows, it’s comforting to know that getting children ready for school—and life—may be just a few deep breathes away.