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“Marshmallows, Jellybeans, and ADHD”

The sweet possibilities of your child’s ever-curious ADHD brain.

You may or may not have heard of the Marshmallow Test, but the Marshmallow Test has heard of you. Let me explain. In 1960, researchers gave kindergarten-aged children a choice: Eat one marshmallow now, or save that marshmallow and have another one later.

The originator of the study, Walter Mischel, found that kids who saved the marshmallow did better in school, on the SATs, and in life. People who saved the marshmallow were thinner and did fewer drugs.

As you would guess, people with ADHD are terrible at the Marshmallow Test.

I try to imagine my six-year-old self taking the test. I would have taken the marshmallow without hesitation and shoved it in my mouth. Then I would have spit it out. Then I would have asked for the other marshmallow to see if that marshmallow was just as dusty, flavorless, and oddly textured as the first marshmallow. Then I would have spit that marshmallow out, too.

I don’t like marshmallows. But that never stopped me from trying them. As a child, I had an empirical bent of mind, and marshmallows were mysterious and fascinating to me. Even today if you gave me a marshmallow, I would be curious enough to take it. Some things don’t change.

Three years ago, I volunteered at a neighborhood elementary school in a pre-reading program designed for dyslexic kindergarten students. Dyslexia and ADHD often go hand in hand, and it wasn’t hard to pick out the students who were diagnosed with ADHD. They were fidgety. They interrupted constantly. They asked strange, tangential questions. They were a lot like me at the age of six.

The teacher I worked with encouraged me to bring small rewards for the kids. Small rewards are a good way to train focus, especially in younger children. I settled on jellybeans. Having jellybeans in my classroom allowed me to conduct my own version of the Marshmallow Test. One day I offered all my students the same choice: Eat one jellybean now, or save that one jellybean and have another one later. All the ADHD students ate the jellybean immediately, and they barraged me with questions:

“What was that thing you said about two jellybeans? How could I get three jellybeans? Where did the bag come from? Is this going to happen everyday? How many jellybeans are in the bag? Are some of the jellybeans green?” The curiosity of my ADHD students was boundless—and wonderful. And they all failed the Marshmallow Test.

The ability to delay gratification is supposedly the key to success in school and life, but I think there’s a lot to be said for curiosity. So many advances in science and technology are the result of a restless, questioning intellect. As a novelist, I find that my best ideas come from the strange tangential questions that pop into my head and refuse to go away.

What if there are no green jellybeans in the bag? What is the mathematical probability that a bag with a random distribution of red, orange, yellow, and green jellybeans would have no green jellybeans? But what if it happened anyway?

What if children stopped asking strange, tangential questions? What would society lose if all children were on task all the time? I think we’d lose a lot.

So I’d like to propose the Jellybean Test: Eat one jellybean now. Go ahead and eat the jellybean. Then ask me a question about jellybeans, and you can have another one. Make it an interesting question.

This is a test most ADHD students will pass.

2 comments

  1. Love this article and the idea at the end – being one of boundless curiosity, having a jellybean now for examole, would thus encourage as I chewed evwn more wuestions than ones where I questioned why we had to wait for more… I can’t say that I am biased in adhd type immediate gratification necause if I don’t have the interesting question myself, I am “jealous” of those who do, whonare more curious, ask more interesting questions, have differing thoughts that may even spark more in my own mind. I think this is beyond a novel idea but an amazing one.

  2. This is beautiful; thank you! I hate the story of the marshmallow test because it reinforces all of those negative feelings and beliefs about myself that I collected for 35 years pre-diagnosis. Your post reminds me that an old, biased test about marshmallows that haven’t even been properly roasted and sandwiched between melting chocolate and toasty graham crackers does NOT have all of the answers to life, the universe, and everything, and that I much prefer the me I was (and still am) to the me I might have been if I could ‘pass’ their stupid, arbitrary test. (And on that thought, how many of us could have ‘passed’ if the adult had stayed in the room and chatted a litte? Maybe this was more of a test for adults and the ways they set kids up for failure to meet their expectations. And THEY were the ones who failed. HA!)

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