Goals, Targets, Rewards and Deferred Gratification

Over forty years ago, in the 1960’s, research was carried out at Stanford University in the USA into how the mental processes of some people allowed them to delay gratification, whilst others simply surrendered to their impulses and/or needs.

Known now as the “Marshmallow Test” more than 600 pre school age children were presented with a marshmallow and told that it was theirs and they could eat it when they liked. However, they were also told that the researcher was going to leave the room for several minutes and when he returned, if they had not eaten the first marshmallow, then they could have another.

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is interesting, as the children struggled to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some covered their eyes with their hands or turned around so that they can’t see the treat. Others started kicking the desk, or stroked the marshmallow.

Walter Mischel, the Stanford Professor of Psychology in charge of the experiments, noticed that a few of the children ate the marshmallow straight away, others would give in and eat the marshmallow within one to three minutes, whilst about thirty percent of the children were able to wrestle with their inner temptation and did manage to delay their gratification being able to wait for the second marshmallow.

On going research has shown that children who gave way to their feelings quickly seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships.

Applying this information to the modern day classrooms of schools in 2011 clearly demonstrates the need to provide a teaching and learning environment that understands the skills and abilities of individual students in their management of their emotions and self control, together with giving them a view of the future and how to get there successfully. The intrinsic links between on task behaviour, appropriate tasks, rewards and motivation are key elements in developing a classroom which takes into account the individual differences of students and helps them to develop.

Practical Tips

With the information given by Walter Mischel’s findings relating to the links between self control and behaviour problems, attention and the ability to maintain friends, it is worth having a close look at the systems in place in your own classroom.

How effective are the rewards you are currently using? Are they linked to completing work  and set tasks or do they link closely to student behaviour? Are they designed to maintain motivation, stay on task and reinforce the overall behavioural expectations of the classroom?

When setting tasks do students fully understand:

What is the starting point of the task?
Where they will be (academically and emotionally) when the task is complete?
What skills and abilities will they need in order to complete the task?
What new skills they may have when they have completed the task?
How can they break the task down into small steps to increase understanding and motivation?
What rewards are available to them along the journey?
Does the teaching and learning environment accommodate the needs of individual students i.e. some students will be self motivated whilst others will require extensive motivational aids.

Current television programmes, students concept of success in the field of sport (wages and material wealth), pop music and unrealistic career choices seem to be fueling the concept of “Instant gratification” which in turn can lead to low self esteem when goals and expectations are not met, low morale and demotivation.
There is absolutely nothing wrong in having high expectations, but if students are to achieve those high expectations they must be given the opportunity to set themselves realistic steps in order to achieve their goals, maintain their motivation, sometimes over quite considerable periods of time and feel that they are receiving recognition and reward for their efforts.

A linked approach between goal/target setting and the discrete teaching of key skills, (recognising emotions, self control empathy and social skills) will enable students to manage or delay their own gratification, remain on task, reduce their behaviour problems and form longer lasting friendships.

And as a final note it is perhaps worth just checking our own ability to delay gratification. How many activities do you undertake your self which are aimed at strengthening your own resolve to succeed and what rewards do you offer yourself to maintain on task behaviour and motivation? Have you ever secretly said to yourself: “I’m not going to do ……until I’ve finished…….!”

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