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A child’s ability to delay gratification for 15 minutes pays
educational dividends years later, studies find
Alanna Mitchell Special to the Star
Published On Mon Nov 2 2009
Neuroscientists are getting a better understanding of executive function by
seeing what is happening biologically inside the brain.

York University professor Stuart Shanker uses electroencephalographs
(EEGs) that look at the dorsal and ventral sides of the anterior cingulate
cortex (ACC) of the child’s brain.

These EEGs show that in children who are not managing anxiety or fear,
the ventral part of the ACC is really firing, spurred by the primitive limbic, or
reptilian, system of the brain.

In children who are showing strong self-regulation, the dorsal part of the
ACC is firing instead, controlling responses from the more primitive part of
the brain.

“You can literally see whether children are controlling anxious responses,”
Shanker says.

It’s called the Marshmallow Test. And some neuroscientists believe it is a
critical first step needed to improve schooling.

“It’s going to be huge,” says Martin Westwell, a neuroscientist at Flinders
University in Adelaide, Australia, adding that many studies show it foretells
success in life more accurately than how well a child can read or do math.
The Marshmallow Test got its name from an experiment at Stanford
University in the 1960s on 4-year-old nursery school pupils. Researchers
told children that they could have one thing they really wanted right away -
a marshmallow, or a candy or a cookie, for example – but if they could wait
while the researcher left the room and came back about 15 minutes later,
they could have two.

It was designed to test self-control. The researchers, led by psychologist
Walter Mischel, found only about 30 per cent of more than 600 children
tested could hold out.

That’s as far as it went until the early 1980s, when Mischel followed up and
discovered the children who had been able to wait for two marshmallows
were also doing better academically.

Jonah Lehrer, in a recent New Yorker magazine article, reports those
children who waited 15 minutes averaged 210 points higher – more than 10
per cent – on college entrance exams than did those who could wait only
30 seconds.

Collectively, the brain skills needed to wait for marshmallows are known as
“executive function” or, more broadly, as “self-regulation.” They include
inhibiting impulses, sustaining attention, planning, prioritizing, and finding
and carrying out strategies to stick to your plan.

In kid-friendly language, it means you can “rise to the challenge.”
Here’s the really exciting thing: Like math and reading, these skills can be
taught and learned. They are not genetic. We can all learn how to get more

Indeed, teachers could learn to teach the ability to self-regulate, says Stuart
Shanker, research professor of psychology and philosophy at York
University and a leading figure in neuroeducation.

His research on children shows that learning self-regulation is a primary
task of newborns. But the later years matter greatly. Shanker is amused
when he reads about a 5-year-old who has strong executive function skills.
It doesn’t mean that child will have them at 6 or 16 or even 66. Those more
complex executive function skills must be learned as you age.
When a baby is born, he says, it has a relatively undeveloped brain and
primitive emotional circuits – fear, rage, love and curiosity – but no ability to
control them. To do that, he argues, the baby must learn from the higherlevel
brain of its parent or caregiver, laying down pathways of neural
connections through one-on-one stimulus and response between the two.
That’s what a parent is doing by teaching the baby to calm itself, for

“By being regulated, a baby acquires the ability to regulate,” Shanker says.
Sometimes, though, that process is interrupted – by stress, hunger,
environment or the caregiver’s inadequate responses. And that creates
problems for the child at school, for the schools and, ultimately, for society.
Shanker says perhaps as many as half of North American children have
poor self-regulation by the time they get to school, citing a study of nearly
3,600 teachers in the U.S. in 2000. It manifests in high rates of attentiondeficit
disorder or hyperactivity, among many other problems.

He and others trace some of this to the increase in neurotoxins – such as
mercury, air pollution and now-banned PCBs – passing through the
umbilical cords, making some children hypersensitive (and others not
sensitive enough) to touch, sound or sight.

That, in turn, interferes with the child’s ability to learn self-regulation from a
caregiver. Their nerves jangle (or remain numb) at the slightest stimulation.
In sheer self-protection, the supersensitive shut down that sense.
Shanker remembers a child at a school in New Zealand where he was
doing research who was considered uncontrollable. Did she have a
disorder, the teachers wondered. Should she be on drugs?

Shanker talked with her in her classroom. He wasn’t getting anywhere. So
he asked: “What’s going on?” She said: “I can’t pay attention to you when
the fan’s going.”

He looked around the room, trying to find the fan. Straining his ears, he
could hear a faint whir in a ceiling vent. He turned it off and the child
calmed immediately.

“The message to teachers is that they need to be a bit of a scientist too,”
says Shanker. “What we want teachers to understand is that there’s no
such thing as a lazy child or a bad child. There’s always a biological story.
The key is to ask why, why, why?”

Is that realistic for a teacher who has 30 kids in a classroom?
“We don’t have a choice,” says Shanker. “We have to ask ourselves, `What
was the goal of universal education?’ … Realistically, if the goal of
education is to help each child maximize potential and we are nowhere
close to achieving it, then what do we change?”

For example, Shanker has looked at the phenomenon of children doing
well in school only to fall off the cliff, academically, at about 13, a
phenomenon evident in high school dropout rates as children hit a more
complex environment and don’t know how to cope.

“Even if a kid comes into school with poor self-regulation, there’s something
we can do. And if a kid’s got good self-regulation, we can grow it,” he says.
He points to the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who died
in 1934. Vygotsky developed tools – outlined in the modern book Tools of
the Mind by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong – that children can use to
learn in a deliberate fashion.

A simple example is asking a child to hold a drawing of an ear while she’s
listening to another child read a story. This helps the listening child
remember what her goal is.
The old game “Simon Says” is a perfect example of an early-school activity
that can help a child improve attention, motor control and control of
impulses. So is having toys just far enough away from a small child so the
child has to get up and get the toy, play with it and put it back before getting

Teaching executive function skills to older students might involve teaching
them how their brains work, explicitly teaching them strategies to
accomplish their goals (including practice and showing them how), and
helping them understand what their goals and motivations are, says Lynn
Meltzer, a Massachusetts-based psychologist.

Shanker stresses that learning executive function skills is not the same as
complying with someone’s orders. Self-regulation comes from within. It is

“Compliance is a terrible indicator of success,” he says, adding an
authoritarian stance at home or at school is a doomed policy. “Zerotolerance?
Are you insane?”

Ideally, says Shanker, it’s not only the pupils who have good selfregulation.
It’s also the teachers, the principals, the community leaders.
“Students do well with teachers who self-regulate. And teachers do well
with principals who self-regulate.”

Zachary Stein, 28, is a PhD candidate in human education and
development at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and a
graduate student of Kurt Fischer, one of the giants of neuroeducation. He
has a word of caution about the rage for executive function.

It’s not a quick fix that can be taught in isolation from other aspects of
neuroscience, such as the need to understand that emotion is a critical part
of decision-making and learning, or that part of the way the brain learns is
to relearn.

By the way, Stein took a later version of the marshmallow test, involving
candies, when he was in first or second grade and living in New Jersey.
He withstood temptation. How? By dancing on his chair and eventually
pushing tiles out of the test room ceiling to distract himself.
“Basically, I misbehaved,” he says, chuckling.

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