Circle time rituals help children beat the Marshmallow Test of self control

Group of kids repeat gesture after the teacherBy Christian Jarrett

Sweet, old-fashioned circle time rituals involve young children sitting in a circle with a teacher and copying his or her specific actions as closely as possible. These rituals can seem a bit out of place in today’s culture with its emphasis on the importance of independent thinking, and the ubiquity of interactive educational games employing the latest beeps and whistles of technology. But a new study in Child Development says there is something about the conformity and attention to detail in ritualistic games that makes them a highly effective way to improve children’s executive functioning (their mental nimbleness) and self-control.

Veronica Rybanska at the University of Oxford and her colleagues tested two groups of 7- and 8-year-old children, one from Slovakia, the other from Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific. The children first completed tests of their executive functioning and self control. The executive functioning test involved learning to respond accurately to reversed commands, such as touching toes when hearing the command “touch your knees”. The self control test was a version of Walter Mischel’s classic Marshmallow Test: if the children could resist eating a single piece of chocolate for 15 minutes, they could have three afterwards.

Next, for three months, some of the children undertook 35-minutes of circle time games twice per week (others acted as controls and didn’t perform these games). The games involved things like dancing, clapping or learning new traffic light rules, such as stopping for purple rather than red. Crucially, among the children who played the circle time games, half experienced them as rituals. They were told they must follow the actions of the game because “it has always been done this way” or “those are the rules and they must be followed”. The others experienced the games in a more “instrumental” way that emphasised the purpose of the games. For example, they were told “if we do it this way, we will learn how to dance”.

After the three month period, the children took the tests of executive function and self-control again. The children who’d completed the circle time games showed greater improvements in their executive function and self-control than the control group children, but crucially these gains were larger in the children who experienced the circle time games as ritual. Moreover, the superior improvements in self-control in the ritual group seemed to be explained by their greater increase in executive functioning ability. These effects were similar in Slovakia and Vanuatu even though the latter culture places a greater emphasis on rituals.

“Far from being a simple matter of ‘mindless’ copying, ritual participation arguably requires the kind of rigorous computation of arbitrary detail and avoidance of normatively proscribed deviation from the script that engages and exercises our executive functioning abilities,” the researchers said. They admitted to the limitations of their study: for one thing, they didn’t measure the children’s behavior during circle time, so it’s not certain the ritual group children really did pay closer attention to the games. Nonetheless, they said there could be educational implications to their results: “the irony may be that in devising strategies for parenting and schooling geared to a world of rapid technological change while neglecting the importance of traditional cultural practices, we may be contributing to a deterioration of young people’s attentive and inhibitive resources, thus promoting impulses toward instant gratification”.

Rituals Improve Children’s Ability to Delay Gratification

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest