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10 Ways to Build Theory of Mind in Young Children

1 Think out loud as you make simple decisions. If you share your thinking your child will begin to understand thought processes and notice how people think through simple challenges in their day.

2 Try to use “mental state” words in conversation often. Important “mental state” words are words used to describe thoughts such as: believe, wonder, imagine, decide, guess, hope, assume, predict and remember.

3 As soon as children begin to understand basic emotions begin to expand to less common ones. Here are some emotion word examples: frustrated, anxious, thrilled, nervous, impatient, disappointed, hopeful, confused and worried.

4 Discuss the characters’ thoughts when you read a story or watch a TV show. Any opportunity to explain what another person may be thinking helps build the child’s awareness of independent thought (Theory of Mind). Many stories and shows develop around one of the characters misunderstanding or missing key information that the other characters already know. This is prime material to have mini chats about emotions and mental state words to show people don’t all think or understand the same things.

5 Tell stories about your memories and talk about how remembering that even makes you feel. Reminiscing is a personal and meaningful way to share your thoughts and emotions with a child.

6 Play with puppets. Puppet or stuffed animal imaginative play causes you to take on the role of another being. This models pretending to be the voice of someone other than yourself.

7 Play imaginatively setting up different roles for the players to take on. Pretending allows you to take on different personality traits and literally role play pretending to be other people having different types of reactions than your real self.

8 Play simple board games and think out loud as you plan out your strategy or simply show/verbalize your emotions as you advance or regress. This is an opportunity to use those words such as “excited”, “frustrating” or “disappointing”.

9 Look through books or magazine pictures for faces with strong expressions. Try to copy these expressions as a game. If the child is old enough to play along try to imagine together what experience could have caused the person to feel that way. Matching emotion words to facial expressions is an important skill needed to develop empathy.

Last but not least, is number 10, which arises through natural conflicts. Try to explain how one child or adult may feel different than the other child or person in the argument. Sometimes this discussion works best when it happens after the heat of the moment has passed. Sometimes just stating another point of view in a simple task such as picking out a favorite cookie can be enhanced to show a child that people have different likes/dislikes.

Language Launcher’s Emotion Matrix Game is a closed set task where players create simple 1 to 2 line stories involving an imaginary event around the object shown to match the emotion named. Playing simple board games such as this could lead to wonderful conversational exchanges using a variety of mental state language as well as opposing points of view to help children understand that each person has their own unique thoughts and opinions.

Another fun task is to add dialogue to pictures to show possible conversational exchanges of others. What are they saying? requires the players to think what others may be thinking or saying in a particular situation.

Pamela Talbot

Pamela is an ASHA certified Speech-Language Pathologist dually certified as a teacher of the hearing impaired. She is a Listening and Spoken Language LSLS-AVT. Pamela has extensive experience training parents and professionals at the international level.