How can setting goals and the use of effective rewards help students to become less impulsive, more attentive and improve their overall behaviour?

Over 40 years ago, in the 1960s, research was carried out at Stanford University in the USA into how the mental processes of some people allowed them to delay gratification, while others simply surrendered to their impulses and/or needs.

In what is now known 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 if they had not eaten the marshmallow when he returned, then they could have another.

Footage of these experiments reveals the ways 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, while about 30% of the children were able to delay their gratification and wait for the second marshmallow.

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

This information clearly demonstrates the need for a teaching and learning environment that understands how well individual students are able to manage their emotions and exert self-control, and which provides them with a vision of future success. 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 you set tasks, do students fully understand:

  1.  What the starting point of the task is?
  2.  Where they will be (academically and emotionally) when the task is complete?
  3.  What skills and abilities will they need in order to complete the task?
  4. What new skills they may have when they have completed the task?
  5. How they can break the task down into small steps to increase understanding and motivation?
  6.  What rewards are available to them along the way?

Does the teaching and learning environment accommodate the needs of individual students? Some students will be self-motivated while others will require extensive motivational aids.

Current television programmes, students’ concept of success in the field of sport and pop music (wages and material wealth) and unrealistic career choices seem to be fuelling the concept of ‘instant gratification’, which in turn can lead to low self-esteem, low morale and demotivation when goals and expectations are not met.

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 and 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 behavioural 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 yourself 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…!’

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 2011

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.