Teaching Self Control – A Fun Experiment

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Today I’m excited to have Corrina from From Mrs. Allen’s Teaching Files here to share a really fun and exciting activity to use when talking about self control. Self control is such a hard thing for kids and adults alike, but helping our kids learn the importance of this skill early on will only help them.

teaching kids about self control with the marshmallow test

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.

What is the Marshmallow Test?

The Marshmallow Test was inspired by Stanford University’s famous “Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by Walter Mischel.

It was originally 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.

Recreating the Marshmallow Experiement

While not scientific, we can recreate the Marshmallow Experiment on a smaller scale in our own classrooms or homes. It’s really easy to do, yet it can have really powerful outcomes. It’s one of the best ways I’ve seen to teach self control.

Here’s what you need to do:

#1 – Buy some big marshmallows

For this experiment you will need enough marshmallows for each child to have 2. 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. You can also substitute another kid favorite treat too. A cookie or small piece of candy works equally well.

#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 – Give each student one marshmallow

Once everyone has a marshmallow, set a time for 15 minutes. 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. I really just observe.

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, hand out the second marshmallows.

I simply have the kids show me the original, uneaten marshmallow. If it’s still intact I give them another one. They can eat both right away.

If a student ate the first marshmallow, 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 – Reflect

The power of this activity comes with the reflection. Having a discussion is a great way for students to start processing the activity, the concept of self control, and what they learned. Here’s some ideas for discussion questions:

  • 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?
  • Now that it’s all over, do you wish you had made a different decision?
  • What are some other times we have to make a choice that involves self control?

We follow-up our discussion with some writing. I’ve found that this writing is an excellent way for students to have some quite time to assimilate and process the activity and our discussion.

After our discussion, I explain the origin of our activity the the kids. And then. . . we watched and discussed these kids and had a few giggles.

Grab these Free Marshmallow Reflection Pages

You can use this Free Marshmallow Test Reflection Activity to add some reflection and writing to your Marshmallow Test.

Save this idea!

You might not be quite ready to complete this activity. Or maybe you just want to save time looking for a video. Whatever the reason, just pin this to your favorite classroom Pinterest board so you can quickly come back.

teaching self control to kids doesn't have to be hard - this fun experiment is great way for them to experience it


  1. School Counselor Sara says

    I love this! Thanks for the awesome idea! I just did one with my first graders about waiting with bubbles. I blew the bubbles and they weren't allowed to pop them. The looks on their faces were priceless!

  2. School Counselor Sara says

    I love this! Thanks for the awesome idea! I just did one with my first graders about waiting with bubbles. I blew the bubbles and they weren't allowed to pop them. The looks on their faces were priceless!

  3. Sonia says

    Hello! Do you still have the free resource available? When clicking on the picture, it takes you to an error message on Dropbox. Thanks!

  4. Julia says

    So amazing! I will deftly test this here in Brasil with my little ones. Thank you very much for share this with us!

    • Amy says

      Thanks Connie! I know that there are a variety of factors that play into each child. As the mom of an ADHD kiddo I know there is more to it than the ability to choose to wait or not wait.

    • Lindsay says

      I agree with this article and it’s not about adhd. Of course, a child with adhd and any other neuroatypical kids would have different things going on in their brains than neurological kids, but this article speaks volumes about children’s socioeconomic status playing into things.
      At the end of the day, this test is quite dated and not indicative of future success.

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