Executive Functions

What Does a Marshmallow have to do with Self-Regulation?

September 23, 2017

I’m Brooke
I'm a speech therapist specializing in early language, but more importantly, I'm a mom of a toddler who has been on her own journey with physical and occupational therapy
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marshmallow on table


If you’ve taken an Intro to Psychology or a Child Development class, you may be familiar with the “Marshmallow Test.” This experiment was first performed in 1960 by Stanford Psychologist Walter Mischel.  Mischel gave preschool children the choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows fifteen minutes later. The children were left alone with the marshmallow and a bell. If they waited, they could have two marshmallows when the examiner returned. If they ate the marshmallow, they could ring the bell and end the experiment.


The most fascinating part of the experiment was not the results at the time, but the follow-up results later in life. As it turned out, how long the children waited predicted that child’s academic and social success ten years later! The children who waited the longest were more popular, had higher GPA scores, and were better able to handle stress. They also had higher SAT scores and performed better on neuropsychological tests.  The ability to wait fifteen minutes for a marshmallow was in fact a measure of something far greater: How well a child could handle temporary discomfort to accomplish a long-term goal (McGonigal, 2012)


Self-Regulation and “Discount Rates”

The ability to delay happiness today for happiness tomorrow is known as our discount rate. The problem lies in our inability to access our future self’s thoughts and feelings (McGonigal, 1997).  The thoughts and feelings we have about our future selves do not feel as real the immediate thoughts and feelings we are having in the moment.  Brain-imaging studies show that we even use different parts of the brain to think about our present selves and our future selves! (Mitchell, et al. 2011)


Hal Ersner-Hershefield, a New York City Psychologist, wanted to test the possibility that meeting your “future self” would help college students financially prepare better for their futures. Using  age-progression software, Hershefield showed his young participants what they would look like at retirement age.   After spending time with their older selves, participants engaged in a hypothetical budgeting task.  Students who had interacted with their future selves put more than twice as much money into their retirement funds as students who had looked at themselves in a mirror!


Self-Regulation and Academic Success

You can see why the ability to imagine your future self is critical for academic success. Not staying up playing video games the night before a test, not waiting until the last minute to start a project, and waking up early enough to not have to rush in the morning all require the ability to imagine your future self. In fact, whenever we plan ahead we mentally practice the idea in our mind, a process called Mimetic Ideational Information Processing.  Speech Pathologist and Executive Functioning Expert Sarah Ward has coined this process “being a mind mime.”


Self-Regulation and Executive Functioning

Being a “mind mime” requires thinking about yourself in the future. Children who have difficulty with this mental practice struggle with executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills are the cognitive processes we use for any purposeful behavior. In order to remediate executive functioning skills, we must help children imagine their future selves.


The foundation for this begins in preschool when children are engaging in pretend play. They are imagining themselves as different people and in different roles. They are using mental flexibility to imagine a basic block is baby’s bottle or a blanket is a cape. During play, children are practicing waiting their turn (inhibition), pretending they are different people (mental flexibility), and remembering the “rules” of the game they are playing (working memory). Children must also engage in social skills such negotiation, cooperation, and sharing with other children during play. Some have even called social skills “the ultimate executive function.”


As children get older, there are other ways to support their executive functioning skills. Asking children and adolescence, “What does that look like?” vs telling them what to do can help support future thinking skills (Ward). Using “job talk” (adding an -er can also help students) picture themselves in the future (Gelman & Heyman, 1999). An example of this is telling a student, “Your job is to be a paper organizer” vs “Organize your papers.” This allows students to access their procedural memory.  Giving children tools such as planners and visual clocks can also help students with planning and organizing. Providing students with a rich vocabulary for their emotions can help with self-regulation skills as it can help them “name it to tame it” (Dr. Dan Seigel). Teaching children about their brains and mindfulness can further provide them with tools for self-regulation and executive functioning.


Executive functioning skills start developing in the first year of life and there is a peak in development in the preschool years (between 3-5) and in adolescence (15-25) (Harvard Center for the Developing Mind)  We can support these skills by encouraging children to think about their future selves. This begins with encouraging dramatic play in the preschool school years and encouraging students to imagine themselves in the future in the adolescent years. Executive functioning skills not only support success in school through helping student plan, organize, and follow through with tasks, but also supports success in every other area of our lives, including career, health, and relationships.

Brooke Andrews Houston Speech Pathologist

Brooke Andrews, M.A CCC-SLP is the owner of The Speech Dynamic, PLLC, a boutique speech therapy practice in Houston, TX. Brooke has presented at various conferences and shares her expertise in her workshops for parents, teachers, and other clinicians.. Her clinical expertise include speech, language, social learning, and executive functioning


Gelman, S. A., & Heyman, G. D. (1999). Carrot-eaters and creature-believers: The effects of lexicalization on children’s inferences about social categories. Psychological Science, 10, 489-493

McGoniga, Kelly (2012.) The Willpower Instinct, 2012 New York: Penguin Group.

Mischel, W., Y, Shoda., and P.K. Peake. Follow-up to the Marshmallow Test “The Nature of Adolescent Competencies Predicted by Preschool Delay of Gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54(1988): 687-96

Mitchell. J. P., J Schirmer, D. L. Ames, and D. T Gilbert. Brain Activation and Self-Control: Medial Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Intertemporal Choice..” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23 (2011) : 857-66

Ersner-Hershfield, H., D. G. Goldstein, W. F. Sharpe, J. Fox, L. Yeykelvis, L. L. Carstensen. Amd J. Bailenson. ”Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self.” Journal of Marketing Research, in press.

Ward, S. & Jacobsen K., “Job Talk,” Developing Executive Functioning. Webinar Tri-State Webinar Series 2015-2016

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