Help Your Children Work More Independently: Self-Regulation, Executive Function Skills & the Real Lessons of the Marshmallow Test

Several of the parents I am working with have been struggling to have their children work independently, without the structure and guidance of their teacher. And for many parents who need to get THEIR OWN work done at the same time – well, it’s been a lot to deal with!

For many clients, we have been successful in developing routines and practices that have been very effective. I would be lying, however, if I said it was easy or always successful. Given any wiggle room or lack of supervision, many kids will stray far away from the task at hand. And we know that threats and bribery are seldom systemically effective and often create more problems than they solve.

You may be familiar with the famous Marshmallow experiment from 1972. Psychologist Walter Mischel put young kids ages 4yrs – 6yrs in a room with one marshmallow on a plate. The children were told that if they could resist eating the snack for 15 minutes, they would get a second one and could them eat both! This experiment was conducted with 100’s of preschool children. You can see videos of these adorable kids faced with this challenge online.

When Mischel followed up with the children 12 years later, he found that those who had earned the second marshmallow scored significantly higher on their SATs than their counterparts! They also avoided problems like drug addiction and jail time at greater rates. These children were more confident and self-reliant. Similar studies done a year later found that self-control was a more important predictor of success than socio-economic level, school grades, and scores on Intelligence Tests. In today’s terms, we would say they had stronger Executive Function skills and greater Self-Regulation skills.

Now before you rush to do the Marshmallow test with your kids (tempting as it is these days to do any novel activity!), I want to prepare you. For me, the more profound lesson is NOT how they do on the initial challenge, instead, how can we help kids (and adults I might add!) deal with the issue of doing something NOW verses LATER.

We know that for many people, especially those with ADHD, time is NOW and NOT now. “The test is on Friday and today is Monday – why are we talking about it now?” “Taxes aren’t due for another 3-months, why do you bring doing them up now?” “Save for retirement now? I’m only 30.” When faced with things that logic and the “mature” voice suggests, we should do now, somehow… ANYTHING else may seem more important at the moment.

I know that many of your children (and possibly you as well) may struggle with this concept, especially now. I think we ALL may struggle with procrastination during this current time.

Below I have included some guidelines and strategies to help with doing the work NOW and delaying immediate gratification.
These tools really work, if you work them.

Develop a routine for work time. I know many of us don’t like to be scheduled, but the benefit of scheduling time “on” is that you also get enjoy planning what you will do on your “off” time.
Acknowledge how you really feel (ex. This is hard, this is boring, this is frustrating, this feels like it will take forever)
Mantra – create a powerful motivating statement to remind yourself that you can survive this
List potential barriers that may get in the way of staying with your intention, and develop a strategy for dealing with these time and motivation stealers in advance
Plan brief, time-limited breaks and do some deep breathing and active stretching. Try the Breath of Joy
Visualize what you will do when done with your work. Maybe post a photo or drawing of the activity you look forward to once you have completed your work, as your incentive.
Use the Pomodoro Technique to map out your tasks – you can finish your work and have more free time.
Ask for support and maybe someone who can gently, lovingly help you be accountable to your plan.
Share your goal with someone who is cheering you on – even if that person is you.

There are many useful suggestions and worksheets to address time management, task initiation, and dealing with the gremlins that get in the way in my book, ADHD, Executive Function, & Behavioral Challenges in the Classroom

Here is a terrific video of Cookie Monster dealing with his struggles to resist his kryptonite – The Cookie: But Me Wait 

As always, be real with your kids. This is an excellent opportunity to share with them some of the struggles you face as you work. Let them offer suggestions to help you resist temptation and stay on task (such as dealing with having constant access to the refrigerator and cupboard!).

And here is a fun challenge – make YOUR family’s version of the Marshmallow Test and post the video on my PTS Coaching FaceBook page where this article appears. See what strategies each person employs to deal with the temptation. I can’t wait to see them! Have fun!

May you be safe,
May you be healthy,
May you be resilient.