The Magic Word that Helps Kids In School

Talking to kids about willpower improves their focus.

Posted Dec 19, 2011

My mom teaches third grade.

Recently she's been talking to her students about willpower (call it the trickle-down effect: I talk her ear off about the science of self-control, and her eight-year-olds get the recap). One of the main tidbits she's passed on is that willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened. The more you practice using it, the better you get and the more willpower you have.

She's found that just having a conversation about willpower has created a kind of willpower miracle. All she needs to say is, "You need to use your willpower now," and the kids settle down and get to work.

She used to say things like, "You need to focus now." But the kids respond much faster and more positively to the word willpower.

Frankly, I'm not sure why the word willpower has had such an effect. Maybe it's because "willpower" sounds like something athletes and superheroes have, while focus sounds more like a euphemism for "sit down and be quiet." Maybe it shifts the focus from what the teacher wants (students working) to what the student wants -- after all, willpower implies that you are putting your energy and strength toward something that matters to you.

Hearing my mom's classroom report reminds me of a study that was done by my colleagues in the psych department at Stanford. Eran Magen and James Gross gave college students a timed math exam, while trying to distract them with a video of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" When they told the students to think of the experiment as a test of their willpower, their performance improved and they were less tempted by the distraction.

When I first heard their results, I remember thinking it was a neat motivation effect, but I wasn't sure it would translate outside the lab. But my mom's experience suggests maybe it does. Whatever the mystique of the word "willpower," it may help us marshal our mental energy to stick to our goals.

The next time you find yourself distracted or procrastinating, try reframing it as a willpower challenge. Remember what you goal is, and imagine yourself flexing your superpowers to get what you want you want.

Study referenced:
E Magen & JJ Gross (2007). Harnessing the need for immediate gratification: Cognitive reconstrual modulates the reward value of temptations. Emotion, 7(2), 415-428.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

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