Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What do Marshmallows have to do with Youth Development?

Don Siegel

What does eating Marshmallows have to do with youth development?  This sounds like a trick question, but in reality, it turns out that marshmallow eating and youth development work are intricately connected. How so, one may ask?

A new book entitled “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control” by psychologist Walter Mischel tells us about a research program started decades ago with preschoolers. In the paradigm that he, colleagues, and his students used, children were told that they could either eat one marshmallow now, or get two marshmallows if they were willing to wait a few minutes. This was a test of what he labeled “delayed gratification”, or impulse control. As might be expected, some children attacked the marshmallow immediately, but some also were willing to wait in order to get the promised two marshmallow reward. While he writes about how those who waited were able to do so, what really makes this research so interesting is that children in both groups were tracked over decades to determine whether those who were able to “delay gratification” differed from those who opted for “immediate gratification”. What he found is quite astounding. Years later, as adolescents, those who delayed gratification, had “…higher SAT scores, social competence, self-assuredness and self-worth, and were better able to cope with stress, more likely to plan ahead, and more likely to use reason. They were less likely to have conduct disorders or high levels of impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, the high delayers were less likely to have drug problems or other addictive behaviors, get divorced, or be overweight.”

Clearly, being able to control one’s impulses, and in this case, delay gratification and forego immediate rewards in order to gain even more powerful rewards at some future time is a core capacity that permeates just about everything that we do in youth development programs. This is because the aggregate of knowledge, skills, and values that we teach are invariably directed towards helping youth to be successful at endeavors such as school, sports, the arts, music, and other activities that require hours of dedicated study and practice. Those hours are often like the time delay of the marshmallow test in that youth can opt for using such time in immediately gratifying activities such as playing computer games, watching TV, or just hanging out with friends or pursuing less immediately rewarding activities such as studying for an exam, drilling on a sports skill, or playing monotonous scales on an musical instrument.

While we in the youth development world may not think of ourselves as promoting capacities that foster the ability to delay gratification, when we look at what we teach it becomes more evident that this is exactly what we are doing. For example, in one way or another we teach the “growth mindset” which is a way to think about ourselves as life long learners. In support of such, we teach our youth how to set goals, deal with set-backs; persevere (show “grit”); control emotions; focus attention; avoid distractions; minimize interpersonal conflict; and build social support to reinforce one’s striving, especially during periods of little overt progress or when experiencing high amounts of stress.

That some youth are better than others at controlling their impulses and working on longer term goals is evident from decades of behavioral research, and more recently, from studies that show differential activation in brain centers that have been identified as “hot” areas (i.e., those associated with impulse satisfaction) in the more primitive limbic system, and those associated with “cold” areas in the more recently developed neo-cortex. While Mischel writes about how and why these dueling systems developed over time, and the nature-nurture debate about how individual heredity and early experiences strengthen or weaken their manifestations, he also conveys that strategies can be taught and learned to enhance the expression of “cold system” thoughts and behaviors, when such will benefit an individual. In simplest terms, he explains that those young children who were able to wait for the researcher to return to the testing room, in order to get two marshmallows, rather than going for the instantaneous single marshmallow reward, did not simply do so because they had a superior “cold system”, but because they had crafted strategies to divert their attention so that they did not dwell on the powerful sensations associated with eating a marshmallow. Mischel writes:

 Successful delayers created all sorts of ways to distract themselves and to cool the conflict and stress they were experiencing. They transformed the aversive waiting situation by inventing imaginative, fun distractions that took the struggle out of willpower: they composed little songs (“ This is such a pretty day, hooray”; “This is my home in Redwood City”), made funny and grotesque faces, picked their noses, cleaned their ear canals and toyed with what they discovered there, and created games with their hands and feet, playing their toes as if they were piano keys. When all other distractions were exhausted, some closed their eyes and tried to go to sleep— like one little girl who finally dropped her head into her folded arms on the table and fell into a deep slumber, her face inches from the signal bell. While these tactics were a marvel to behold in preschoolers, they are familiar to anyone who has ever been trapped in the front row at a boring lecture[1].   

The message from these initial studies, and those conducted subsequently on impulse control, is that virtually anyone can create or be taught strategies to frame situations in such a way as to decrease the impulse to act immediately when more deliberate planning and thoughtful restraint will serve to benefit them more.

An interesting side note, discussed by Mischel, of particular interest to youth development programs that attempt to develop assets in participants that have transferable value across contexts is that the capacity to control “hot” areas is largely situation specific. Despite initial beliefs that people possessed generalizable traits that manifested themselves consistently across contexts, research and current events tells us that such traits only represent a potential for behavior. Current conditions, and environments can play an overpowering role in how one behaves, despite inherent dispositions. As Mischel conveys, well know persons such as former president Bill Clinton, or golfer Tiger Woods had an incredible ability to forgo immediate gratification (highly controlled individuals we might have thought) in pursuit of their core goals (i.e., political or sport success), but when it came to other aspects of their life, were unable or unwilling to invoke the same deliberate control and discipline, which ultimately got them into trouble.

The message here, for those of us attempting to help youth develop assets that are deployable across contexts, is to be deliberate about teaching for transfer. In Mischel’s way of thinking, he suggests that individual’s must not only possess capabilities, but understand how to deploy them. A large part of this entails thinking in terms of “If”…”then” in that “if” a certain situation arises, and I have a tendency to behave rashly or without forethought (i.e., the “hot” system predominates), and this results in less than optimal outcomes, as may be expected, “then” I need to step back and draw on those assets I possess, perhaps deployed in other contexts, and exert control (i.e., invoke the “cold” system) so that my behavior helps me to achieve what I want, or, at least does not derail me from achieving what I wish to achieve. In a sense this is what cognitive behaviorists allude to as “inoculation training”, which entails helping individuals make decisions and prepare for situations that they may subsequently encounter so that they perform optimally in the heat of the moment, rather than being usurped by their “hot”, impulsive, systems.

Overall, The Marshmallow Test, helps those of us working with youth to better understand what it is that we are trying to achieve. In essence we are teaching our kids an array of things, and helping them to build an arsenal of capabilities that can be deployed across a range of situations so that they are ultimately successful in transitioning from childhood to adolescence, and then to adulthood. Most importantly, we are teaching them self-understanding, and how to negotiate the maze of situations in their lives that can result in a happy and healthy future, or to derail them from having such lives. Optimal development, as Mischel shows us, is intricately tied to waiting for that second Marshmallow, which is all about recognizing and controlling our “hot” impulses in order to acquire greater long-term rewards.

[1] Mischel, Walter (2014-09-23). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control (Kindle Locations 328-334). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mindfulness Should be a Core Skill in Youth Development: More on The Clarissa Effect

Mindfulness Should be a Core Skill in Youth Development: More on The Clarissa Effect

Don Siegel

Last Spring Project Coach had a guest presenter who conducted several sessions on an attentional focusing technique called Mindfulness. As taught, participants were instructed to breathe rhythmically and to focus their attention on various sensations and thoughts that passed through their minds while they sat quietly in a circle. The overall point of the exercise was to try and teach PCers that it is important to be able to focus their attention on what is occurring in the present if they and their players are to perform optimally, as dwelling on the past or worrying about the future has little bearing on what one is doing in the moment. Great athletes have learned to be mindful while performing, leaving thoughts about the past and future to their training sessions. As we have been told by our coaches, “don’t worry about what just occurred, be in the moment.” But, as so many of us know, these directions are a lot easier conveyed by coaches than followed by players. Like other self-regulatory skills, such as managing stress, learning to stay in the present takes practice. The breathing strategy deployed by our guest presenter was a good starting point. Nonetheless, we found that staying in the moment was not so simple, as we needed to learn how to allow any disruptive thoughts to passively, and non-judgmentally, pass through our minds while we refocused on the actual sights, sounds, and sensations impinging on us.

While athletes and coaches know the value of being in the present, another take on the value of mindfulness relates to what I labeled The Clarissa Effect in my last post. This entails the phenomenon of program participants starting to thrive only after years of little change. In Clarissa’s case, she behaved poorly for a number of years, but all of a sudden started to bloom, once she realized how much her peers and program staff cared about what she needed and wanted, and how her own attitudes and behavior had been counterproductive to her development. The question for all of us who have seen this story play out time and again is what changed in Clarissa? Why did it take so long for her to follow a more positive trajectory? Could it be that her self-perceptions and view of the world was biased by ingrained images of an unhappy past, and a lack of hope for the future?  Was Clarissa’s transformation prolonged because of her inability to better understand her present situation, in which she was engaged in an array of enriching experiences and supported by peers and program staff who cared about her?

As conveyed in my previous post I alluded to Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about the disconnect between our experiencing self (Self 1), and our conscious self (Self 2). The gist of his contention is that Self 2, which is the self with which we have internal conversations, and the one that we think of as playing a critical role in the choices that we make and the behaviors that we emit, is greatly influenced by our recall of past experiences. As Kahneman tells us, Self 2 also bases such judgments on somewhat biased memories of those experiences, as it has a tendency to recall “peaks and valleys” of those experiences and how they ultimately ended, more so than the actual ongoing stream of experience itself. Consequently, a youth may be engaged in activities that are intrinsically rewarding, highly developmental, and socially redeeming, but may only label and recall her experience of them by sampling a few salient events occurring within them that may not authentically reflect their true meaning and value to her while involved. For example, someone like Clarissa may be participating in a game of soccer that she seems to thoroughly enjoy, but because of an altercation that occurs late in the game with a peer, and a subsequent reprimand from a staff member, may result in her Self 2 labeling the activity unpleasant, and counterproductive to her personal development, even though a large portion of her engagement in the activity was extremely positive. Indeed, she may have learned or enhanced her soccer skills, discovered new ways to foster teamwork with her fellow players, revealed leadership qualities that she heretofore was not aware of, and enjoyed the mental and physical challenges of sport. Yet, the altercation and its aftermath leave Self 2 painting a very different and negative picture of the overall experience.

I wish to contend that just as mindfulness training can enhance an athlete’s capacity to perform in the present, it can also be deployed to help Self 2 better connect with Self 1. Seemingly, if this is so, then it may be possible to weaken The Clarissa Effect as Self 2 would get a richer perspective of the many developmental experiences a youth experiences when participating in a sport based or other youth development program. The idea here would be for youth to better understand how what Self 1 experiences is not necessarily what Self 2 recalls, and that Self 2 needs to do a better job of recalling more of what Self 1 is experiencing, just as coaches do when they review game film. More succinctly, if we believe that exposing youth to enriching experiences impacts their development, then youth need to understand what these experiences are, what they are learning from them, how participation in them makes them feel, and how such experiences can impact who they are and how they behave across various contexts in their lives. On the other hand, if youth are less able to process all the positive developmental experiences to which they are exposed, then it seems likely that such exposure will have less of an effect on them, and that The Clarissa Effect will have greater potency.

While I do not know of any strategies for using Mindfulness Training in this manner, I would like to propose that we start by adapting a protocol from the Experience Sampling Methodology (ESM), a technique pioneered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the originator of Flow Theory. Using ESM, subjects are typically probed at random times while engaging in an activity by answering such questions as what are you doing, who are you with, how are you feeling, what are you thinking about, what are you learning, who are you helping, etc? The basic notion is that by asking youth such questions at random points during their activities Self 2 will become much more aware of ongoing experience, and, thus, recall these ongoing experiences much more readily in constructing their summative memories of them. Project Coach has actually run several ESM studies and data from them support the notion that youth are able to assess their ongoing experiences quite accurately. However, we have not yet tested whether their Self 2 recalls of those experiences correlate highly with what their Self 1’s are saying. Clearly, teaching our youth to be mindful goes well beyond them learning to kick a ball better or teaching their players to shoot it more accurately. If deployed creatively, my guess is that it can greatly decrease the time kids like Clarissa get to “takeoff” velocity.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“The Clarissa Effect” in Youth Development

“The Clarissa Effect” in Youth Development

Don Siegel

After so many years of debating the virtues of such things as charter schools, vouchers, Race to the Top, teacher assessments, no child left behind, and now, the common core, little attention has focused on how kids see things, and what gets their fires lit to learn. No initiative, no matter how logical it may seem or how much political and financial support it gets, is going to promote real growth in our youth unless youth are on-board, ready, and willing to engage with curricular content and the people responsible for delivering it.     

As a case in point, the story of a child struggling in an afterschool program provides a window into this critical aspect of a child’s life. Clarissa came from a difficult home situation, and lived in a neighborhood in which gangs, violence, and drugs were rife, and in which unemployment and poverty were the norm. She struggled with school, had not thought much about her future, and was on track to become another teen mother who would likely continue in this cycle of hopelessness. By chance, she connected with an afterschool program that engaged kids in a sport, while promoting a better life through academic enrichment, travel, and building social capital. When Clarissa first started the program she conveys that she had a “bad attitude”. She talked back to staff, fought with peers, gave only a half hearted effort during sport sessions, and blew-off the academic component of the program. Essentially, she was a kid “on the bubble” who was not really engaged or taking advantage of what the program had to offer. She was also the kid who staff dreaded, and who was on the verge of being constantly suspended because of her bad attitude and the negative effect she was having on others in the program.

Yet, after several years, Clarissa had an awakening in which she realized that her negative attitude was not really getting her what she wanted from life.  She conveys that she started to realize that listening to staff, participating more positively, and following directions got her more satisfaction than talking back and being nasty to everyone. What changed for Clarissa?

Clearly, it took Clarissa a great deal of time to understand that the people who she saw everyday really wanted to help her, and lookout for her wellbeing; something that she had not experienced with other peer and adult relationships she had experienced over the years. Clarissa conveyed that her bad attitude came from “never feeling like anyone was there for me and not caring about what I wanted and needed, so, after a while I didn’t care about others.” She further observes that once she really felt valued, having a positive outlook came easily. Overall, she felt happier, which in turn, became a source for her to move forward despite other challenges that she faced.

Over the years, Project Coach staff have observed many variations of Clarissa’s awakening. It is not unusual for us to work with youth who for a very long time, sometimes several years, have poor attitudes and are fairly non-responsive and unwilling to participate fully in our activities. But, then all of a sudden something clicks, and like Clarissa, they start on another, more positive, trajectory. This is one of the ironies and frustrations of doing youth development work. It is very non-linear in that there may be little overt change from day to day with a kid, but then one day, like “Leo the Late Bloomer”, a switch seems to flip, and they begin to blossom. For want of a better label, we might call this the “Clarissa Effect”.

While no one really knows how or why such transformations take place, I  believe that they have to do what is going on in a youth’s emotional life. A recent book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has something to say about the “Clarissa Effect”. Kahneman proposes that we really have two selves driving our behavior. The first he calls Self 1, which is instinctive, automatic, emotional, stereotypic, and frequent. The second is Self 2, which is what we typically think of when we describe who we are. It is slow, effortful, logical, and conscious.

Of particular interest in his framework is the notion that these two selves work independently as we experience the moment (Self 1), and as we recall the aggregate of moments experienced (Self 2). In essence, Kahneman believes that our conscious self remembers overall experiences more by their peaks and valleys, and by the way an experience ends, than by the quality of ongoing experiences from start to finish. According to Kahneman, Self 2 is the remembering and conscious self, while Self 1, the experiencing self, that which lives in each moment of an experience, is a “stranger” to us.

While these dichotomies of self, as they relate to one’s identity and behavior, can get quite confusing, the take away from Kahneman’s work is that the “stranger self” (Self 1) needs to become less strange and more familiar to the  “conscious self” (Self 2). In essence, Self 2 needs to become more aware of the positive experiences associated with ongoing involvement in an activity; it’s positive affect, and the part that one’s behavior makes in shaping such experiences and feeling.

My take away from Kahneman is that for Self 2 to get to this point, the Clarissa’s of the world need to be immersed in activities that feel good and leave a dense trail of salient peaks with few valleys.  Ultimately, it is Self 2 that is transformed by day in and day out exposure to positive experiences; the snippets of which are compiled and assembled into pictures that the more conscious, deliberate, and conscious mind can understand. This takes time, especially for youth who’s Self 2 has already been defined by negative experiences that have shaped their negative identities. Consequently, the “Clarissa Effect” entails bringing Self 2 into better alignment with Self 1, a process of cohering one’s conscious and less conscious worlds.

The bottom line here is that over time we will encounter many Clarissa’s, and if we wish to get them on-board with our programs, and in so doing, a brighter future for themselves, we need to help them feel good about themselves, and understand how their own behavior promote such feelings. There is no formula for doing this. But what seems to work is sticking with these kids and exposing them to a continuous stream of interesting activities and supportive people. Some may respond quickly, while others may be multiyear projects. But, if they keep coming back, they are finding some satisfaction in being with us. As the aggregate of peaks build so will the likelihood that they change course, and move in a more productive direction.  


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.