Dave Levin on Not Eating the Marshmallow

Character Strengths

By Lori Warren, Senior Communications Manager, KIPP Foundation

Fifty years ago, Dr. Walter Mischel, then a professor of psychology at Stanford, conducted a series of trail-blazing experiments on self-control that would influence a generation of researchers. To celebrate the anniversary of this work, and share subsequent learnings, Dr. Mischel has released a new book, “The Marshmallow Test. Mastering Self-Control.Dave Levin has collaborated with Dr. Mischel over the years (KIPP is featured throughout the book) and his thinking on character has been greatly influenced by Dr. Mischel’s work. In this blog post Lori Warren, KIPP Senior Communications Manager, chats with Dave about the research, and what’s new on the character front at KIPP.


Lori: Walter Mischel’s book “The Marshmallow Test. Mastering Self Control” has recently been released. Can you explain what the Marshmallow Test is and how it informed your early thinking about character?

Dave: The Marshmallow Test is a series of ground-breaking experiments conducted by Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford, on delayed gratification. In the experiments, children were given a choice between getting one small treat now, or two treats 15 minutes later. It turns out, children who could wait longer for the reward tended to have better life outcomes on wide variety of measures. Dr. Mischel’s work greatly influenced my thinking. When I saw the image of a four-year old, sitting there stoically, ignoring the marshmallow, I realized what these kids were doing was psychologically distancing themselves, distracting themselves and using strategies now to get what they wanted later.


Self-control is one of the seven character strengths that KIPP focuses on in the classroom. The others are grit, zest, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity. Why does KIPP focus on these strengths?

It’s a combination of research and practice. These particular character strengths have a strong research base around them – they have been shown to be highly predictive of positive life outcomes. This, combined with the experience of classroom teachers, is why we focus on these strengths. Ask any teacher what they want their kids to work on and self-control is always high on the list. It’s really fundamental to learning.


KIPP has emphasized the importance of character development, weaving it into classroom instruction from day one. Can you tell me what’s new on the character front at KIPP and how our thinking has evolved over time?

Increasingly we are trying to create bridges between the world of academic research and the world of the classroom, so that one informs the other. This leads to more informed research, and more effective practice. It also helps us grow and advance the field of character research, which, of course, helps us strengthen character in ourselves and our kids.

For example, the power of peer pressure has been well-documented in the research. We know that adolescents are six times more likely to drink alcohol if their peers do. We know that students are more likely to take in and act on information from someone they relate to. As teachers, we also know that kids are hard-wired to socialize and to learn.

These considerations led Leyla Bravo-Willey, who is the Dean of Students at KIPP Infinity Middle School in NYC, to question whether peer pressure could be used to enhance academic and socio-emotional skills in the classroom, and even more importantly, if positive peer pressure could become a norm in schools. So she developed a way to test this idea—creating “Trust Circles” in her 5th grade classroom, which function like a student-led support group for positive behavior.

In a Trust Circle, students play team building games, learn how to solve group problems, work on positive reframing, and practice having difficult conversations with peers. They also celebrate each other’s success. This structure empowers students to support each other towards communal goals, helping them practice crucial life-skills that can be applied outside the classroom.

This effort started in one classroom, and it’s been so successful that Trust Circles are now part of every classroom in the school, and positive peer pressure is a new norm.


And speaking of creating bridges between academic research and the classroom, you co-founded Character Lab –a “non-profit bridging the science of character development with the daily work of teaching so all kids can fulfill their potential.” Tell me more about this.

As you noted, character has been part of KIPP since the beginning. That’s where “Work hard. Be nice.” comes from. We wanted to be able to share the innovation and impact we were having in our classrooms outside KIPP’s walls, so that other students could benefit. Together with Dr. Angela Duckworth, a professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dominic A.A. Randolph, who is the Head of Riverdale School in New York, we came up with the idea for Character Lab.

The mission of Character Lab is to develop, disseminate, and support research-based approaches to character that enable kids to learn and flourish. Right now we’re looking for great ideas from teachers in and outside of KIPP on how they are growing character strengths in their classrooms.


That’s so exciting, being able to have that kind of impact in the lives of so many students. On a personal note, you have two sons. Max is five and Zach is four. Any stories of their burgeoning character skills you’d like to share?

It’s great having two little boys as your own tiny laboratory at home. I get to see this work play out every day. In my sons, I see the impact of the growth mindset I am trying to encourage in them, and see how they use psychological distancing on their own. I am teaching my boys what to do when they get frustrated, and how they can overcome those frustrations.

A favorite word of a growth mindset is “yet” – “I can’t do that – yet.” I want them to know that even though something is hard at first, it gets easier with practice. And that learning is something that we can all benefit from, and what we’re working to instill.


Learn more about KIPP’s approach to character >