Supporting the development of Theory of Mind in school age children

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, I’m not a mind reader” is something that I have been told by many children I’ve worked with on Theory of Mind.  However, if you go into a primary school class, you will be amazed how many of the children are using their Theory of Mind skills to do just that – to work out how the teacher is feeling (then deciding not to ask her again if they can sharpen their pencil), to know what games other children might want to play with them at breaktime, and even to predict how different children in their class might react if they are told off.  But as we have discussed, these skills develop gradually, and there are ways you can give your child a helping hand…

4 examples to help Theory of Mind - Let’s agree to disagree

Talking about people’s likes and dislikes is a good way of introducing children to the concept that other people have different thoughts and states of mind to them:

  • Stand up if you like…  set a topic, e.g. food, toys, sports, TV programmes, bands.  Take turns to be the leader and say ‘stand up if you like… e.g. chips’.  The winner is the person who suggests something that everyone likes!  See at the end if the children can remember what other players liked.
  • Change places if you like… if you’ve got a few more children playing, you can change places with someone else who likes the same thing as you (instead of just standing up).
  • Jukebox jury - when you listen to a new song on the radio, take a moment for everyone present to say whether they like that song or not, maybe even giving it a mark out of 10.  You can also discuss whether you liked new books you’ve read together, TV programmes, films, etc.  The key thing here is that everyone is allowed their opinion, but also has to listen to the other people’s opinions!  Older children could write a review for a children’s magazine, or pretend they are presenting a review to the family on TV, giving pros and cons before their final opinion.
  • Event planning – involve children in planning family trips or activities, part of a holiday, or a party. Explain to them which elements they can choose themselves, and what they have to agree on with the rest of the family/group, so that they can start to learn how to compromise.

An emotional whirlwind -Theory of Mind

During the school years, children feel a whole range of complex and mixed emotions – one event can lead to a confusing mix of emotions for a child.  For example, such as winning a school sports day race can lead to excitement, pride, jealousy of another child’s bigger trophy, and even guilt at winning when their best friend came second.

Role play and drawing out simple comic strips of complex social situations can help children to understand the feelings and intentions of others in the situations.  Talk together about the non-verbal cues and signs that would help in the real life situation (e.g. my friend was smiling at me when I won, so he might be trying to be happy that I won, he isn’t angry with me so I don’t need to feel guilty).

Your child will now be ready to expand their emotional vocabulary to include talking about feelings such as guilt, jealousy, embarrassment, nervousness.  Talk about how these feel to the person themselves, e.g. embarrassment can feel like you’re getting hot, as well as how to spot these feelings in other people, e.g. someone who’s embarrassed may go red and look at their feet.

6 more ways you can help your child learn to understand and manage their feelings

  • Talk about your own thoughts and feelings, e.g. “I had hoped there would be a car parking space here, I feel disappointed now.  Let’s remind ourselves it’s not too far to the shop, we can just walk”   Remember that children who hear this kind of reflective talk about emotions typically develop stronger Theory of Mind skills.
  • Using words such as ‘hope’, ‘wish’, ‘thought’, ‘guess’, ‘imagine’, ‘believe’ helps your child learn about these mental states.  For example, when you’re playing pairs, saying ‘I hope I find another card the same’, or when playing ‘hide and seek’ saying ‘I wonder where Sam could be hiding…’  This helps your child learn about the (normally hidden) thought processes of other people when playing these games.
  • Help your child to understand the experiences of characters in books, TV programmes, and films, by making the link to the child’s own life experiences.  For example, if the character in the book is excited because it is their birthday party, talk about how your child felt at their birthday party.
  • Make predictions together – pause a TV programme or film (or use the ad break) and discuss what everyone thinks might happen next.  With older children, ask for reasons for their prediction – what clues did they use from the story so far, from the context and from the characters?
  • Picture books – ask your child to guess what a character could be saying, or thinking.  You can buy sticky notes that are in the shape of speech and thought bubbles to stick on the page, or you could print some out (Microsoft Word has speech and thought bubbles under insert - shapes).  I have a speech bubble and thought bubble cut out and laminated ready for laying over picture books when the opportunity arises.
  • You can also use family photos or images from the internet of the child’s favourite characters in a similar activity.  Copy and paste these into Microsoft Word or another word-publisher, and you can easily add on your own speech and thought bubbles.  Older children could then make up their own simple Comic Strips. Younger children could have fun thinking of all the different things the person or character could be thinking and saying.  You could hold your own caption competitions!

Remember that the journey to understanding the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of other people is something that never ends – even as adults we will continue to hone our skills, so have patience with your child or teenager as they are developing their Theory of Mind skills.  Even if they won’t discuss their feelings with you, try to keep an open, reflective dialogue with them about your thoughts and feelings and, slowly but surely, they should get there – good luck!

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist

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