Of my memories from high school physics, Isaac Newton’s Third Law stands out as easy to remember: ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. His statement applies to forces, but to my mind is easily adapted to suit social and emotional learning in terms of consequential thinking: ‘For every action, there is a consequence.’
As adults, the vast majority of us live in societies where there are positive and negative consequences to our actions. Consequences to our actions are usually clearly set out in the laws of a country, though there may be variation in how strictly these laws are upheld. I’m sure you can immediately call to mind some examples.
My adopted home country of Singapore provides a great example. Consideration of the potential consequences is key to avoiding negative outcomes, such as placing your rubbish in a bin rather than throwing it on the ground to avoid a fine for littering. However, consequential thinking is also a vital skill in building trust within our personal relationships, whether this is in a social or professional context.
A vital competency
Consequential thinking involves evaluating the costs and benefits of our choices and is vital for managing our impulses and acting intentionally rather than reacting. Many people have heard of Walter Mischel’s research at Stanford University in the 1960s involving marshmallows and four year old children. The children were told they could either eat the single marshmallow in front of them immediately, or wait for ten minutes without a researcher present, after which time they could have two marshmallows.
According to Mischel, the children who waited for two marshmallows demonstrated a significant indicator of consequential thinking. Intriguingly, there were marked differences between the groups as they moved into adulthood. The group who opted to wait for two marshmallows were found to be more socially competent, more resilient to stress and able to engage their self-reliance to pursue their goals. As adults, the group of children who took the single marshmallow tended to be more negatively affected by stress, more reluctant to engage in social contact and more likely to react angrily to frustrations.
The role of schools
As children grow older, the stakes become higher when it comes to making a decision. In their teen years and beyond, individuals face difficult decisions about a range of tricky issues, such as the level of their involvement with smoking, drinking, drugs and sex. Before children reach this point, it would seem wise to give them plenty of opportunities to practise and develop their competency of consequential thinking at the primary school level. Those schools with clear behaviour policies and a consistent approach to enforcing consequences, both positive and negative, are so well positioned to support children’s development in this area. Consequential thinking is the cornerstone of personal responsibility, helping children to recognise the consequences of their decisions and actions and the importance of following through on commitments. To me, a school that supports their pupils to develop this competency is doing a great job of preparing their pupils for life outside the classroom.