This month, we’re exploring how to teach young children theory of mind.

Eddie (3 years old) had been upset when his mum left him in the morning. His childminder rang his mother so that Eddie could speak to her and put the phone to Eddie’s ear. Eddie said, ‘Look what I made, Mummy!’ and held up his picture for his mother to see.

This is a cute scene and one that has been replicated over the land! Eddie does not realise that his mother can’t see his picture over the phone.  He thinks that just because he can see it, she can too. This is about theory of mind, which is the ability to understand that just as you have your own thoughts, feelings and beliefs, other people have their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. When we are truly empathetic towards another person and put ourselves in their shoes, this is theory of mind in action.

Theory of mind is all about social interaction and begins developing at a young age when babies of around 6 months old can distinguish between animate and inanimate objects. As they grow and develop, young children will be able to engage in joint attention with other people (around 12 months) and learn how to sense the direction of another’s gaze (around 18 months).  The ability to engage in pretend play and imagine that an object is something else (around 2 years) also contributes to their understanding of theory of mind.

However, it really starts to develop more fully at around 4 years old when children begin to understand that other people have their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. They can also begin to understand that sometimes someone has a false belief.  Imagine you open your favourite box of chocolates to find that it has conkers inside. Your colleague comes in and looks at the box – what do they think will be inside?  Chocolates?  This is an example of a false belief, where someone believes something to be true that is not true because they do not have the same knowledge as you.

In a short video clip Cameron (4 years old) is shown a playdough container that doesn’t contain playdough and he is asked what is inside. He guesses playdough and finds that it is full of candy.  He is asked what his cousin would think is in the box and he answers candy. This demonstrates that he is, as of yet, unable to realise that other people do not know what he knows. A year later this scenario is repeated in a similar way with a chocolate bag that actually contains cars, and in another clip Cameron, now 5 years old, demonstrates his theory of mind as he realises that his Grandma would guess that the chocolate bag would actually have chocolate in it.

When these false belief activities are completed with 3-year-old children, they are not able to guess correctly, whereas most 5-year-olds realise that another person does not have their knowledge.   This involves predicting what one person thinks, feels and believes about what another person is thinking, feeling and believing. Theory of mind also involves complex language such as idioms, metaphors and sarcasm which can usually be understood at around 6 or 7 years old.  This is why, when an adult uses a phrase such as ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, we find our young children run to the window to look!

Some experts believe that theory of mind develops over a lifetime and certain groups of people find it particularly difficult.  No or limited theory of mind makes it difficult to realise why people do and say the things they do and to understand different perspectives.  It can also make a person vulnerable in the sense that they may not understand the true intentions of another person which could become a safeguarding issue.  Limited theory of mind can also make it harder for groups to role play, engage in storytelling or pretend play and ultimately more difficult to make friends and socialise.

Groups who find theory of mind particularly difficult include:

  • Children under 5 (or older for faux pas/ metaphor etc.)
  • Adults and children with specific needs, for example, autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), Asperger’s syndrome (AS), major depressive disorder (MDD), mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (mTLE), schizophrenia
  • Adults or children who are deaf or those with hearing loss
  • People with lower competence in language or social communication difficulties
  • Adults or children with damage to specific areas of the brain.

As children get older, they also become more socially competent picking up on subtle social etiquette such as faux pas:

Lisa (5 years old) was given a present for her birthday from her Uncle John.  She unwrapped it in front of him – it was a pink, sparkly tiara and wand set.  ‘Urggh – I hate pink’ she said and threw it onto the floor!

This is a classic example of faux pas, when you ‘put your foot in it’.  As a grown-up we inwardly cringe at this social mistake, however, at 5 years old, Lisa does not yet understand about other people’s feelings and social etiquette. Children are learning from experience and from imitating others and thus they may learn the social rules prior to understanding why those rules are in place.  For example, they may know that they are not supposed to point at the large lady sitting on the bus sitting in front of them, long before they understand why they are not supposed to do this. 

Generally speaking, understanding of faux pas does not develop until around nine to eleven years old. This is much older than we probably think and older than the age when an adult will brush away comments believing them to be cute rather than rude. However, although children may not have fully developed theory of mind, we can still support them in learning the rules about social interaction.

There are many reasons why we should teach children about theory of mind. It will help them to develop self-regulation and teaches them a social language. It can assist them to manage their own feelings and, in turn, move the child from being egocentric to being more sensitive about how other people feel.  It can also support children to develop feelings of empathy. 

Strategies to support children’s development of theory of mind

  • Teach children to be emotionally literate
  • Help children to be aware that other people have their own thoughts and feelings
  • Consider different perspectives in games and stories
  • Teach how to read non-verbal cues and gestures
  • Role-play and rehearse different social situations
  • Use visual aids to support teaching about abstract concepts
  • Teach sign language to aid communication.

Here are some ideas of activities to try which will support children with their theory of mind:

  • Help children to recognise different facial expressions and follow eye gaze by playing ‘hotter and colder’ with facial expression and eye gaze to help the child find a hidden toy
  • Overemphasise your body language and ask the children to guess how you feel
  • Play a ‘guess the gesture’ game
  • Play the ‘what if?’ game e.g. What if I was singing loudly and mummy was trying to get my baby sister to sleep. What should I do? 
  • Engage in pretend play
  • Read stories and talk about what a character might do next, how they feel and what could happen…
  • Plan activities that encourage children to think about feelings and emotions and what they mean
  • Tell jokes, use figurative language and idioms, explaining what you mean
  • Explain other people’s behaviour in past, present and future scenarios
  • Use Social Stories to support understanding
  • Use the language associated with thinking, feeling and believing; feel, forgot, think, know, guess, thought, believe, understand, excited, angry, sad, happy etc.

When we have an understanding of the ages and stages of development relating to theory of mind, we can respond more appropriately to young children, understanding that sometimes the things they say are not unkind or rude, instead they are demonstrating that they have not yet fully developed theory of mind, just like Eddie and Lisa above.

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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