Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Cellphones and Halloween Candy: How to Help Students Resist Temptations

A technique that works across different situations
By Angela Duckworth — October 12, 2022 1 min read
How do I help students have more willpower?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

How do I help students have more willpower?

There are more effective techniques for self-control than trying to increase willpower. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

This year, I am fulfilling my lifelong dream of giving out full-size candy bars to trick-or-treaters on Halloween. I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, this would be on it.

At this very moment, on a very high shelf in our basement, in a large cardboard box sealed with duct tape, sit dozens and dozens of Hershey bars, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Kit Kats, M&M’s, and Snickers.

Why hide away this glorious bounty? Why not double the joy of anticipation by leaving the candy out in plain view?

My guess is that you know exactly why I’ve stashed away the goodies. And you’re right. Hiding Halloween treats where we cannot see them is a clever self-control trick. As the old saying goes, what’s out of sight is out of mind. In the scientific literature, the technique is called situation modification.

We’re not born knowing this self-control strategy. We learn it.

In the classic delay of gratification paradigm, most 4-year-old children prefer to wait with the marshmallows in plain sight. But two years later, children prefer to cover the marshmallows because, as one 6-year-old child explained, “It would just seem like there were no marshmallows in this room.”

Yet at any age, it helps to be reminded of this trick.

In one study, both high school and college students were given a 15-minute lesson on situation modification and asked to apply it however they wanted in their everyday lives. Compared to a control group of students encouraged to use willpower, students taught situation modification were better able to achieve their academic goals the following week.

Don’t equate self-control with old-fashioned willpower. There are far more clever tricks for resisting temptation.

Do make self-control easier by using situation modification. Stashing Halloween candy where you can’t see it is just one idea. Another is keeping screens of any kind—cellphones, televisions, computers—away from bedrooms. The ways you can modify your situation are only limited by your imagination.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being What the Research Says Teen Brains Aged Prematurely During the Pandemic. Schools Should Take Note
Researchers cite chronic stress during the pandemic for the phenomenon, which can affect mental health among youth.
3 min read
Cracked silhouette of a person holding their head with illuminated gears in place of the brain.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being Sports Coaches Want More Training on How to Address Young Athletes' Mental Health
A survey found that only 18 percent of coaches feel confident that they know how to connect their athletes to mental health supports.
4 min read
Physical Education teacher Amanda DeLaGarza instructs students how to stretch during 7th grade P.E. class at Cockrill Middle School on Nov. 9, 2016 in McKinney, Texas.
Schools in the United States earned a D-minus grade in 2022 in an international ranking from the Physical Activity Alliance for how well they facilitate access to physical activity for students. Research shows that physical activity, such as participation in sports, improves mental health.
Ting Shen/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Student Well-Being Schools Are Not Identifying All Their Homeless Students. Why That Is Hurting the Kids
Hundreds of thousands of homeless students are not receiving the services they need, new report says.
3 min read
A young Black girl with her head down on a stack of books at her desk in a classroom
E+/Getty
Student Well-Being Students Have Ideas to Address Mental Health Challenges. They Want to Be Heard
Students have solutions that can help teachers and school leaders support youth dealing with stress, anxiety, and other issues.
8 min read
Group of diverse people (aerial view) in a circle holding hands. Cooperation and teamwork. Community of friends, students, or volunteers committed to social issues for peace and the environment.
iStock/Getty Images Plus