Adult Marshmallow Tests

The marshmallow test is about instant gratification versus delayed gratification. Usually we hear about this as it pertains to students in No Excuses charter schools. See here. Or here. But it applies to adults, too. Let's start with parents. Example: getting your kid to sleep through the night.

So far as I can tell, there are 2 ways.

1. Eat the marshmallow (pick up crying kid, instant gratification, stops the crying immediately).

There are plenty of experts who are pro-mallow! Baby Center calls it No Tears Method.


Co-sleeping, rocking and nursing your baby to sleep, and other forms of physical closeness to create positive sleep associations now and healthy sleep habits down the road.


2. Delay gratification ("sleep train" the kid, endure short term psychic pain of listening to crying -- for us it lasted about 90 minutes on Night 1, then 30 minutes on Night 2, then all set -- but kid learns to sleep and parent GETS to sleep).

These things cause epic and furious discussions in "parent world." For those of you without kids, know this: the passion around debates like how to get a kid to sleep (not your kid per se; children generally) probably exceeds even the Ed School edu-battles (edu-babbles?) on how best to teach.

Almost every reality show like Nanny 911 features this case study prominently. Exhausted mom. Never gets sleep, cuz always wakes to hold crying baby, ensuring wake up persists endlessly. Makes all her daytime parenting a struggle. (Dad is usually always online doing email and surfing web and toddlers fight to get his attention. Just FYI). Nanny 911 teaches family to sleep train, and in the end, kid (and parents) sleeps happily ever after.

* * *

Is there an Adult Marshmallow Test not just for new parents, but new teachers? Yes. My colleague Orin describes it:

A particular group of new teachers starts off strong giving clear consequences to kids who break their rules. Early September goes well.

The kids push back for one (or some combo) of the following reasons:

a) Teacher is a rookie, and kids smell it.

So kids don’t believe just yet that teacher really means business. Classic staring contest: who blinks first? Just like baby who nobody is picking up.

b) Rookie teacher is stricter than others. Two versions of this.

b1) The other teachers are way too lax, and the rookie appropriately is trying to get kids to work harder than what they are used to.


b2) The veterans’ classes are smoother. They have stronger "presence," better command of the curriculum, and much more automatic and even-keeled reactions to misbehavior. So they deter.

So kids say to the rookie teacher that she is unfair. "You give way more demerits than other teachers." The fact is true. But the judgment is wrong. The rookie is giving more demerits because (understandably) the kids misbehave more often (b2) or because the other teachers are indulgent (b1).

Now we come to the Marshmallow Test. Does the teacher continue to enforce the rules?

1. Eat The Marshmallow

Teacher says: “It’s the same kids who keep getting the demerits all of the time, and they don’t seem to change their behavior. So what’s the point?” If you hear that, the marshmellow was gobbled and is being digested.

Teacher says: "Enforcing the rules wasn't working, so I added a lot of prizes when kids do a good job." Marshmallow eaten. Hey, we're all in favor of positive praise. We explicitly teach how to do it. But one rule: kids can tell the difference between authentic praise and fearful bribery. The latter is counterproductive.

Teacher is observed giving tons of whiny-sounding resets and narrating the negative: “I’m still waiting for silence…come on guys, get focused….what’s going on with this class today…”

2. Stare Down the Marshmellow.

a) Understand that just because demerits don't "cure" the issue immediately doesn't mean that they won't payoff down the road once kids realize you’re for realz and they stop testing you.

b) High-dosage relationship building with the heavy hitters (and their families) privately; publicly keep doling out the consequences.

c) Keep lots of positive narration, positive framing, and point system, but never something inauthentic or out of weakness.