Training children in self-control
What is the effect of training children to exercise self-control? Niko Steinbeis has been awarded a major European subsidy to find the answer to this question. The innovative aspects of this research are the target group, an individual approach to the training and examining the child brain the scanner.
Can we train children in self-control? It's a question that interests Leiden developmental psychologist Steinbeis. He focuses on the age group of 5-10 years, an important period because children's brains at this age are much more flexible than adult brains. Steinbeis is interested in such questions as: Which children benefit most from training, younger ones or those a little older? How long does the effect of the training last? No studies have previously been carried out on training for self-control in children, apart from one study where the stimuli for the training were too weak. Steinbeis believes the stimulus to implement what was learned in the training course has to be strong enough for the child to make progress, and he therefore intends to tailor the training to each individual child. No pain, no gain. ‘Will our results improve the earlier we start training children in self-control?' is what Steinbeis wants to find out.
Child brain in the scanner
The combination with brain science is what makes Steinbeis's research so unusual. He will use an MRI scanner to examine the effect of training on the structure and function of the child brain. His goal is to find out who benefits most from the training. Steinbeis: ‘If we can find out which children make more progress than others, we can ultimately offer important leads for interventions in daily life. It will then be interesting to explore the effect of this training on other areas, for example, the willingness to share. That, too, calls for self-control as well as the ability to empathise with others.’
Predicting the future
Self-control has an effect on your personal relations, on society and also on the economy. Research on self-control has previously been conducted over a longer period. This research showed that an important predictor for success in society is the so-called 'marshmallow test'. Does the test candidate eat the marshmallow immediately, or does he control his impulse to eat it, with the promise of an extra marshmallow to look forward to later?
New research group
Steinbeis, originally from Germany, has been working at Leiden University for a year, in the Developmental Psychology department. He is part of the Brain and Development Lab that, in his opinion, is one of the best research labs in Europe. An ERC Starting Grant is an incentive for young researchers who obtained their PhD no more than 7 years ago. Steinbeis can use the 1.5 million euros to employ two PhD candidates and a postdoc in his own research group for five years. His research will focus on investigating the effect of training on the children taking part in the study; he will measure both the short-term results (after 8 weeks) and the longer-term effects. He estimates that it will take a year to plan the research, a further year to gather the data, and the rest of the time will be spent on analysing the data and writing articles on the findings for publication in scientific journals.
Photo: Northeastern Magazine