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What is Theory of Mind? (a.k.a.”ToM”)

What is Theory of Mind? In my mind (no pun intended), it’s like the “spine of social skills”, the backbone that pulls all communication together.

It’s the underlying piece that enables a child to navigate social situations, to understand humor & point of view. It’s the skills that support a child to become a competent conversationalist.

Often abbreviated as “ToM”, it is a cognitive awareness that basically let’s us know that each person has a mind of their own.

It develops in incremental stages over several years through early childhood. The child begins to realize that people have their own thoughts, emotions, and that each person creates their own opinions based on different experiences.

Before Theory of Mind develops a young child thinks everyone has the same view of the world as he does. (I’m going to just say “HE” but it could just as easily be replaced with “SHE”). A preschooler may presume to know a friend’s favorite color or that when he is hungry so is everyone else. This does help explain a little about that stage when kids seem so egocentric as if their little world revolves entirely around them. Well, in fact, at that stage, in their mind the world DOES revolve around them. Yet, sometimes we still talk to them as if they process information and emotions in the same way as a mini-adult.

In infancy babies begin to relate to adult faces by attempting to copy facial movements and expressions.

Toddlers begin to associate cause and effect related to their behaviors and the reactions of their parents. They begin to realize that people may react differently than they actually feel about something. How could a parent not like jumping on the bed or drawing on the wall?

Between 4 and 5 years old the “real” life lessons begin.

This is when children really start to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. Conversations around the characters in storybooks really start to develop their emotional awareness of their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. Pretend play peaks in this age.

This type of imaginative play requires children to act like someone else and at this stage you can notice them trying on different roles.

Soon, children begin to notice that people can be thinking one thing but not show it. Like when someone acts happy and appreciative for a gift they really don’t like or want.

Over time children begin to notice what others may be thinking even if the person doesn’t say it.

It’s a perception of other’s mental states.

Over time this reaches a level reading between the lines to understand subtle or inferential information, to process sarcasm/humor and word play.

Children develop through levels of ToM at different rates. Sometimes children are slow to develop ToM merely due to limited social interactions. Which goes back to the topic of screen addiction taking so much time that there’s less time for social experiences (read a previous post here).

However, for some others it’s more than reduced environmental experiences. Children on the autism spectrum often show noticeable evidence ToM deficits. Hearing loss and attention deficit disorder also have a higher correlation with ToM delays or weaknesses. Weaknesses in Theory of Mind might show in a variety of ways.

Here’s some conversation skills that require ToM:

  • “Reading” your audience (the person listening to you) to know when you need to clarify content of your message.
  • Anticipate the informational needs of your listener. (You would clarify “my sister, Sue”, rather than just talk about Sue to someone who doesn’t know you have a sister named Sue).
  • Recognize sarcasm
  • Feeling and showing empathy for others
  • Be an active listener by giving non-verbal feedback to a person speaking to you. You may nod your head, use interjections such as “uh-huh” or “uh-oh” at particular points. You would also change facial expressions to let the speaker know you were attending to their message.
  • Taking another’s perspective
  • Playing “devil’s advocate” to bring awareness to a particular point of view
  • Understand verbal humor and unstated inferences.
  • Laugh at “inside jokes”
  • Recognize when someone is giving hints that they are trying to “wrap up” a conversation.

At early ages children begin to learn words for a wide variety of emotional states. It starts with happy, sad, mad but eventually expands to a wider array of feelings and vocabulary such as disappointed, disgusted, hopeful, curious, intrigued, proud, frustrated and on and on. For many children this development appears to happen naturally and spontaneously.

However, we can always do more to boost vocabulary and conversational development by being conscious of increasing the level of words and sophistication of the language we use in everyday interactions with children of all ages.

When a child has a known language delay for any reason adults in the environment may not use as “colorful” language. People tend to simplify and use more familiar words in an effort to gain “common ground” where there’s stronger comprehension.

It happens too often with parents of children with hearing impairment where the parents water down the level of vocabulary to simplify the language.

Sadly, the kids with delays often need MORE exposure to richer vocabulary, not less.

Often more practice and some explicit explanations over time will do more to enhance understanding of vocabulary and social situations than reducing language.

One very important strategy for facilitating the development of ToM with children who have difficulty reading social cues or are at risk for language delay (such as children with hearing loss) is to think out loud.

  • Make your thoughts audible so the child can hear your thoughts.
  • Talk through everyday situations and problems so the child can hear you talk through your thinking.
  • As you talk about your actions elaborate your feelings connected to the experiences.
  • When you read stories to your child make sure to talk about what your thinking as you encounter the characters of the book, make predictions of what might happen.
  • Be especially conscious to use “mental state” language (such as: think, realize, believe, imagine, emotions, wonder, expecting, dreaming, knowing etc).

The more we use “The language of thinking” and “The language of conversation” the faster the child will begin to make those connections to the mental states of others.

There’s so much to learn related to Theory of Mind development. I hope you’re as fascinated as I am about this topic to be inspired to do some further reading. Feel free to drop some links to other articles, stories, research about Theory of Mind in the comment section to give readers someplace to begin their exploration.

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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.