QUICK LOOK: By age 3 environmental factors like parenting are relevant to the development of self-control

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By age 3 environmental factors like parenting are relevant to the development of self-control.

Research done at the University of Texas at Arlington
Published in Developmental Psychology

Effectively here’s new research designed to assess impulse control or the ability to delay gratification in toddlers using the Marshmallow Test protocol, among others. I have blogged about the Marshmallow Test in early posts. Here’s the takeaway statement from the article on this research:

“Understanding the development of self-control mechanisms is vital as individuals with low levels of inhibitory control develop more cognitive and socio-emotional development issues, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD,” said Jeffrey Gagne, an assistant professor of psychology in UTA’s College of Science and co-author of the study.

As I have said many times, secure attachment is the foundation upon which rests such Executive Function (EF) skills as the ability to delay gratification, which could also be viewed as valuing the future. For more on the Marshmallow Test and it’s 40+ year history, see the 2014 book by it’s chief animator Walter Mischel entitled The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control.

Mischel’s book has a great section (pages 50–54) on his collaboration with Lawrence Aber, director of the Barnard Toddler Center in the 1980s. Aber used the Strange Situation Assessment (SSA) to assess for attachment functioning in toddlers. What Mischel and Aber discovered is that there is a connection between the SSA and the Marshmallow Test. Mischel puts it this way:

[T]he toddlers who spent those last 30 seconds of separation in the Strange Situation distracting themselves from Mom’s absence became the ones who at age five waited longer for their treats and distracted themselves more effectively during the Marshmallow Test. In contrast, the toddlers who had been unable to activate the necessary distraction strategies were also unable to do so when waiting for their treats three years later and rang the bell [to get their treats] sooner. These results underscore the importance of regulating attention [an EF skill] to cool down stress, beginning early in life.

Kids who struggle with ADHD have difficulty distracting themselves when they are asked to work on a task that may take some time to complete. In other words, these kids are not able to imagine the task and to keep the task and its duration in mind. I think what is interesting about the UTA article is the observation that up to age two genetic factors influence the ability to control impulses. After age two, environmental factors take center stage, such as parental influences. As ADHD expert Russell Barkley points out in his 2012 book entitled Executive Functions—What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved, behavioral medications used to treat ADHD do reduce symptoms, however, they do little as far as developing EF skills like impulse control, focusing attention, and delaying gratification.