Although not in the curriculum, helping our students develop more self-control will reap huge rewards during the school year and throughout their lives. One simple (and deliciously fun!) way to help children recognize and practice self control is The Marshmallow Test. Here’s what you need to do:
#1 – Buy some big marshmallows – enough for each student to get two.
I always opt for the Jet-Puffed Jumbos – and really play up the fact that I “splurged” on buying them the best, most tasty marshmallows I could find.
#2 – Explain the rules of the “test”.
I usually say something like, “I’m going to give each one of you a delicious marshmallow to eat. Mmmm….doesn’t that sound great? Here’s the deal. You can eat that yummy marshmallow right away if you want. OR – if you can wait just 15 minutes without eating it, I’ll give you a second marshmallow, and then you’ll have TWO to eat! Either way is fine.”
#3 – Place a marshmallow on each student’s desk. Set the timer. Observe!
Depending on the age of your students, you may want to increase or decrease the time they have to wait. Typically, I conduct this “test” during independent reading time or while they have work to do at their desks. I avoid making any comments or walking around. Those children that can resist will usually do one of two things:
- Distract themselves – squirm, hum, make faces, doodle, anything to keep from eating that treat!
- Remove the temptation – avoid eye contact with the marshmallow, cover it with a napkin, or hide it somewhere. Out of sight, out of mind!
#4 – After 15 minutes, reward those students who resisted with a second marshmallow. And EAT!
I simply have them show me the original, uneaten marshmallow and hand them a second one if earned. If not, I sympathize, saying “Aw…I know it was really hard to resist. I’m not sure I could’ve done it either!” Keep it light and fun. 🙂
#5 – Write and Discuss
Have students reflect on their experience during the “test” by writing or sharing their thoughts. Here are some ideas for prompts that will deepen their understanding:
- What helped you resist eating the marshmallow?
- Do you think it would be easier or harder to resist if you were by yourself?
- What if I was out of the room?
- Did your classmates influence your decision to eat the marshmallow?
- Why did you decide to eat the marshmallow before the 15 minutes were up?
- What would have helped you wait longer?
- How long do you think you could wait?
- What if it were a different kind of treat?
- What lessons did you learn from this “test” that you can apply to your own life?
Although this could just be a fun activity, the discussion and reflections at the end of it can be very powerful. You can easily include the classroom Marshmallow Test as part of units on decision making, nutrition, character traits, or even math!
The Marshmallow Test is inspired by Stanford University’s famous “Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by Walter Mischel and designed to study the characteristics of children who could delay gratification. In that original experiment, children were left alone with the marshmallow in a room with little distractions. In follow up studies, the children who were able to wait longer were generally more successful later in life. You can learn more about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment here.
Corrina Allen lives in Central New York with her husband and their two young daughters. She‘s been teaching for over 9 years – most recently 5th and 6th grades. She is the author of the blog, From Mrs. Allen’s Teaching Files, where she shares teaching strategies, free resources, and reflections on her classroom experiences.