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Developing Theory of Mind with Books

Developing ToM through storybooks can be effective, efficient, and fun. To learn what Theory of Mind is, refer to another Language Launcher’s post called “What is Theory of Mind?” Most children develop ToM in what seems like an automatic effortless process. Some children require more time and experiences to acquire the same level of skills.

There are some children that require direct instruction and guided practice to “grow” Theory of Mind skills.

Even if a child might not NEED direct instruction, ALL children can certainly benefit from emersion in an environment enriched with experiences that enhance ToM.

Probably the most efficient way to enhance ToM development is to “Experience a storybook together” with your child.

Reading to your child EVERY day already brings so many benefits but some small enhancements to the process can bring it to a hole new level of value.

If you and your child enjoy read-a-louds together you may notice you already naturally use some of the suggestions in this post.

Remember, ToM is the awareness than other people have thoughts that can be different from your own. So, in general, anytime you can direct attention to others’ thoughts or emotional states is useful.

Here are some suggestions to bring these concepts to life:

#1: The most important, number 1 rule is “Don’t do anything, EVER, to ruin the joy of books.” If the child doesn’t have interest or attention to books then grow it one page at a time. Don’t aim for 20 minutes of attention with a child who doesn’t enjoy listening to a book, that’s just a session of torture for both of you.

Anytime you add commentary or time to story you should be adding to the enjoyment of the experience.

#2: While you are reading, sporadically comment about your own thoughts related to the story. The following are examples: “I think that hat is so pretty, I wish I had one like it.” “That boy looks like he’s having a great time.” or ” I would be so mad if my brother broke my toys.”

Watching you react to the story as you read it serves to validate the child’s own awareness of your feelings.

#3: Identify and talk briefly about the emotions the story characters may be experiencing. Try to expand emotion words beyond the basic common vocabulary of happy, sad and mad.

Words such as frustrated, anxious, hopeful, irritated, and relieved, to name only a few, open the doors for new levels of discussion.

#4: Think out loud as you begin to predict what a character might say or do next in the story. This models for the child that readers think as we read. We actively process the storyline as it unfolds. We don’t just passively sit and look at the pictures.

#5: Move in and out of the reader role as you comment about your own interpretations and comments about the story.

For early listeners, you may give some additional contextual cues such as putting the book down or shifting to establish eye contact when you are in any way elaborating on your own point of view. Then deliberately go back to the book when you switch back to the “role” of reader. This will help differentiate when you are reading the text vs. when you are speaking your own thoughts.

#6: Make some personal connections to the book for your child to relate to his own experiences. For example, “that reminds me of last night when we ate spaghetti.”

Try not to get way off topic or comment too often. That would interfere with the process needed for the child to comprehend the actual storyline of the book.

At times when you can comfortably slip in a comment and model some of the connections you make when reading the book you are actually demonstrating how our mind is actively thinking while we read.

As adults our minds are multitasking as we read. We are thinking in many ways as we process the meaning of the words on the page. We are visualizing, predicting, judging, inferring and reflecting as the information from the story unfolds.

Children learn about Theory of Mind from engaging in rich discussion when we talk about how we think and feel. Out of these experiences grow emotional awareness, empathy, social development and the ability to have sophisticated conversations and deepen connections to others.

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.