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Creating a Reliable World: The Critical Role of Trusting Relationships in the Development of Self-Discipline


It has been nearly fifty years since the original marshmallow experiment, launching a series of studies that have shed significant light on the important role that self-discipline plays in children's success. Author Erin Walsh looks at the newest research using marshmallows and how this informs us about trust and reliability. 

Topics Covered:

  • Role Models
  • Student-Teacher Relations
  • Staff Development
  • Informal Mentoring
  • Engagement

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It has been nearly fifty years since the original marshmallow experiment, launching a series of studies that have shed significant light on the important role that self-discipline plays in children's success. Lead researcher Walter Mischel found that self-control, measured by the ability to wait twenty minutes for a second marshmallow rather than eating the first and forfeiting the second, became an incredibly strong predictor of children’s later academic and career success, self-esteem, and happiness.1 Additional research has bolstered those claims,2,3 sparking national interest in how delay of gratification, perseverance, and self-control might help close the achievement gap.

While few deny that self-discipline is a critical success factor overall, some education experts worry that the overwhelming focus on grit and self-control (terms often used interchangeably with self-discipline and executive function) individualizes the challenges students face and ignores the impact that poverty and income inequality have on outcomes.4 For example, educational consultant Grant Lichtman argues that the self-control narrative can obfuscate the role of race and class and reinforce the idea that if only students “would just put their nose to the grindstone harder and work harder, and be more diligent and more resilient, that they will do better.”5

In addition to ignoring the influence of systemic barriers to achievement and the impact of poverty and toxic stress on executive function development,6 there are other reasons that we should be wary of putting the entire onus on students themselves to “pull themselves together.” It turns out that adults and communities have a huge responsibility as well: To ensure that every child learns that good things come to those who can wait.

A team of researchers at the University of Rochester revisited the marshmallow test a few years ago, introducing a new element to the experiment's design.7 Just before the test, some of the children had an interaction with a reliable adult and others with an unreliable one. The first group was promised art supplies and stickers that were given as promised, while, for the second group, the supplies never appeared.

This small change to the experiment’s design had a major impact on children's willingness to wait for the second marshmallow. Only one of the kids who experienced an unreliable adult decided to wait it out while over half of the kids who experienced a reliable interaction earned the two-marshmallow prize. Put yourself in a young person’s shoes: “Why would I wait for the second marshmallow if I’ve learned through experience that it probably won’t arrive?”

Marshmallows first taught us about the importance of self-discipline. Now they are teaching us about two of the core ingredients students need to employ it-- trust and reliability. As the authors of the Rochester study note, “Wait-times on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks (e.g., the marshmallow task) may not only reflect differences in self-control abilities, but also beliefs about the stability of the world.”8

Children and youth don't learn to exert self-control in a vacuum. They do so in the context of relationships. Search Institute’s “Developmental Relationships Framework” provides a compelling roadmap for adults seeking to build positive and trusting relationships with children and youth. The framework identifies 20 actions that fall under the following five categories: 9

  1. Express care: Show children and youth that you like them and want what is best for them.
  2. Challenge growth: Insist that children and youth try to continuously improve.
  3. Provide support: Help children and youth complete tasks and achieve goals.
  4. Share power: Hear the voices of children and youth and let them share in making decisions.
  5. Expand possibilities: Expand the horizons of children and youth and connect them to opportunities.

We also can’t ignore the systemic challenges that undermine these relationships. Policies and initiatives that address poverty, racial inequities, violence, and substance abuse can strengthen caregivers’ capacities to provide what children and youth need.10 Likewise, access to affordable community resources like healthcare, childcare, parent education and workforce training also reduces the burden on adults and make it more likely for them to provide positive and reliable environments for children and youth.

To start a conversation about a systemic approach to ensuring that all children experience a more reliable world watch and discuss the Harvard Center for the Developing Child’s “Theory of Change” video with your colleagues, friends, or family.

Articles cited:

  1. Shoda, Y., Mischel, W. & Peake, P. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification. Developmental Psychology. 26, 978-986.
  2. Duckworth, A. & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescence. Psychological Science. 16(12), 939-944. Self-discipline is twice as strong a predictor of school success as intelligence (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005).
  3. Moffitt et. al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. PNAS. 108(7), 2693-2698.
  4. Gow, P. (2014). What’s dangerous about the grit narrative and how to fix it. Education Week. Access at: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/independent_schools/2014/03/whats_dangerous_about_the_grit_narrative_and_how_to_fix_it.html
  5. Chen, I. (2014). Measuring Self Control a Marshmallow Test for the Digital Age. KQED Mindshift. Access at: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/09/measuring-self-control-a-marshmallow-test-for-the-digital-age/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+kqed%2FnHAK+%28MindShift%29
  6. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, (2011). “Air Traffic Control System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function.” InBrief Series.
  7. Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., Aslin, R. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition. 126(1), 109-114.
  8. IBID.
  9. Search Institute (2014). “A Research Update From Search Institute: Developmental Relationships.” Access at: http://www.search-institute.org/downloadable/Dev-Relationships-Framework-Sept2014.pdf
  10.  Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child. “Building adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes.” Access at: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/multimedia/videos/theory_of_change/

Writer: Writer: Erin Walsh is a national speaker on issues related to brain development, parenting, and the impact of media and technology on child health and development. She is a speaker for Bolster Collaborative and guest author for the Practice Brief Series. She is also one of the founders of Mind Positive Parenting, where she translates the latest discoveries in brain science into practical advice and strategies for parents and youth-serving professionals.

This brief is one in a series describing new knowledge and innovative research emerging from the field of youth development. The briefs are intended to inform parents, professionals, and volunteers in education, youth development, and related fields; and to contribute to a heightened national awareness of youth development practice.



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