Theory of Mind: Information for Teachers

Theory of Mind: Information for Teachers

Submitted By: Michelle Peterson

From Chapter 9: Social Cognition

Chapter 9 blog concept map

Theory of Mind (ToM) “refers to students’ understanding that other people have mental states-beliefs, desires, knowledge and intentions- that are different from their own and the ability to infer or figure other people’s mental states (Bergin and Bergin, 2012).” Theory of mind has a large role to play in the classroom setting. Students use ToM to help them makes predictions about the behavior of others around them.  This can be viewed as a reflexive process.

Theory of Mind has many different stages. Early stages develop joint attention (where the child and adult can talk about an object.  “Recent studies reveal that the theory of mind abilities of young children predict their later academic performance as adolescents” (‘Theory of Mind’ Skills in the Classroom, 2010). By the time a child reaches school age, theory of mind continues to improve. One major thing that happens is that children become able to establish intentional and unintentional acts. In the classroom setting it is especially important to be aware of this stage of understanding.

Into adolescents, children’s ToM development slows down, but there is still some room for learning. Sometimes at this stage, children make mistakes about people reading. When this happens, it is helpful for teachers to foster opportunities for peer interaction.

What does this mean for the classroom? ToM is relative to each individual. It is important for the educator to understand that each person’s ability read people, situations and to interact based on those readings will be different. Many students struggle with concepts related to theory of mind, (particuallry studnets with Autsm Spectrum Disorders). The following is a list (from  of difficulties you may notice in your classroom if a student is struggling with ToM concepts:

1. Difficulty explaining ones behaviors

2. Difficulty understanding emotions

3. Difficulty predicting the behavior or emotional state of others

4. Problems understanding the perspectives of others

5. Problems inferring the intentions of others

6. Lack of understanding that behavior impacts how others think and/or feel

7. Problems with joint attention and other social conventions

8. Problems differentiating fiction from fact

What teachers can do to help create opportunities for working on these skills is:

  • Start slow when building social skills. Focus on one skill at a time.
  • Teach direct instruction to social interaction skills.
  • Role play scenarios that will help the student process possible outcomes for social interactions.
  • Practice body language ques. Students may need to be told specifically what to look for when someone is happy, sad, mad etc.
  • Teach the student to ask questions when they do not interpret something. This is tough to do, but with repeated practice and structured opportunities, the child will likely progress.
  • Be clear about facts and fiction. In your daily teaching, be sure to structure your lessons to explain facts and fiction. This may need to be many times.
  • Encourage times when it is okay to talk with a peer in the classroom. Students need opportunities to interact together within their learning environment to foster learning from each other socially.


Alic, M. (2009). Theory of Mind. Retrieved from

Avise J.C,  Ayala F.J., Conde C., Lombardo J.C., (2013).  In the light of Evolution VII: The Human Mental Machinery. Retrieved from

Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D. A. (2012). Child and Adolescent Development in your Classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Executive Functioning and Theory of Mind. Retrieved from

Goldstein, T.R and Winner, E. Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind. JOURNAL OF COGNITION AND DEVELOPMENT, 13(1):19–37. Retrieved from

Theory of Mind, Skills in the Classroom. University of Hertfordshire. Published June 17, 2010. Retrieved from

Discussion questions:

  1. Have you ever worked with a student who struggles with ToM concepts? If so, how did you help the child overcome the difficulties?
  2. Do you believe “people reading” is important at the early stages of learning?
  3. What are some challenges that may arise from having deficits in ToM skills/concepts?
  4. What would be a way to create social skills learning in the classroom setting and how would you structure it?
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13 Responses to Theory of Mind: Information for Teachers

  1. anonymous50 says:

    1. Have you ever worked with a student who struggles with ToM concepts? If so, how did you help the child overcome the difficulties?

    I have worked with many middle school students who displayed difficulty with ToM (due, most often, to Asperger’s Syndrome or other social-emotional disorders), but one in particular stands out, because while his ToM was underdeveloped, he was aware that it was and desired to rectify that. This student, “Sam”, was exceedingly bright, tipping the IQ scale in the genius direction. He also had parents who were introspective intellectuals (an engineer and a mathematician, both well-read and well-educated) and hailed from an Eastern heritage, which created language and cultural barriers at times, as well.

    Sam came to me in 6th grade respected, but not necessarily befriended, by his peers. The other students admired Sam and treated him kindly enough, even attempting to draw him into their ‘friend circles’, but Sam simply didn’t ‘get’ his peers, often looking quizzically at them when they bantered with one another. He also tended to take their sarcasm seriously – which led to some interesting misunderstandings. His difficulties in understanding the motivations, emotions, behaviors, or intentions of others extended to the analysis of some of our literature, as well, as did the use of symbolism, motif, and metaphor or the conflicts (such as man vs. himself) that simply seemed illogical to him.

    In short, after establishing a trusting relationship with Sam, he came to me for advice/help. After a guided discussion, he decided that he would write down questions about peers’ actions or attitudes in his planner as situations unfolded and then come to me for clarification, taking careful notes (his idea) about how and why his classmates behaved as they did and what his ‘normal’ or expected response should be. He became a purposeful student of improving his own ToM, and I was his chosen tutor. Because I had this small class of twelve students for all three years, we developed signals so that I could alert him to humor or sarcasm, and he learned to ask for clarification, either from me or, eventually, his classmates when he didn’t understand why someone said what they did or behaved in a way that confused him. He also learned to take feedback from his classmates about how his behaviors or statements were perceived, and, most importantly, used that feedback to adjust his interactions.

    Over time, Sam learned to ‘read’ his classmates better and to participate more naturally in the social universe of middle school, so much so that he was elected as the student body president by a landslide vote, after including jokes (which were actually funny) in his speech, much to the hooting and hollering of his contemporaries and the teary-eyed amazement of his proud teachers.

  2. Brooke says:

    Have you ever worked with a student who struggles with ToM concepts? If so, how did you help the child overcome the difficulties?

    In my current classroom I have a few students who suffer from various autism spectrum disorders. This definitely has an impact on their understanding and comprehension of ToM concepts and presents a challenge on most days in my classroom. One student who seems to have the most trouble is very intelligent and has a very high reading level. His troubles occur when we move into partner or group work. This student does not like participating in shared collaboration or student learning conversations. It is rare that he makes eye contact and it is difficult for him to understand the mood and emotion of others. Sometimes this student laughs uncontrollably at inappropriate times or blurts out when others understand quiet is expected. In my class we practice putting ourselves in others shoes and verbalize our feelings and discussing other views and perspectives. It is very difficult, however, to teach a student who has ToM issues due to a disability and cannot control it no matter how much you practice social situation.

    With a majority of non-disabled students, practicing and positively promoting ToM skills can lead to improvements. I had one student a few years back that was very impulsive. He said whatever came to his mind and when interacting with peers, completely disregarded the feeling of others. The team teachers all agreed that practicing ToM in all of our classes was important (although we didn’t have the official ToM term to refer to). In the classes this student was in, we began being more deliberate with our practice. We also made use of our lunch detention time with this student as well. Instead of having him come and sit in silence, we would keep a conversation going. We would ask about how he was feeling and what he thought others were thinking when he would have outbursts and lose control. At the beginning, there was not a lot of progress made, but by the end of the year we noticed we were seeing him less and less in lunch detention. By no stretch was he “cured,” but there was an improvement that helped him get along socially with his peers and teachers. I would like to think his ToM awareness was raised that year : )

  3. Mary Decker says:

    What would be a way to create social skills learning in the classroom setting and how would you structure it?

    I think that any classroom today that follows Best Practices would have ample opportunities for students to practice their social skills. For example, my classroom activities often have partner and small group cooperative learning. At the beginning of the year, we always set expectations of what each type of interaction should look like. Often, we also assign roles to different group members. One students would be the leader, another the note-taker, another the peace-maker, etc. By rotating the students through these roles, they have a chance to practice all of these types of social skills. Leaders get to practice facilitating discussion, asking people for opinions, and making sure all students get a fair turn. Note-takers develop skills in listening to others, summarizing their thoughts, and clarifying opinions. Peace-makers become masters in conflict resolution, stating occurrences objectively, and justly making decisions.

    Our class also holds weekly class meetings. At these meetings, we would practice greeting each other respectfully, giving and receiving compliments, sharing news for the week, and discussing any classroom issues. I would then also choose one social skill each week to have the students practice through role-playing. This could be as simple as dealing with distractions in the classroom, or as complicated as standing up for others who are being treated poorly. This sort of direct instruction would probably qualify as character education. I found it to be very beneficial to the general feeling of our classroom climate.

    • Amanda Morris says:

      Some of the things you practice in you classroom sound a lot like things that go on in my grade level. We do a lot of “turn and talk” about things we are working on in class. The students also work together on assignments in groups and partners during our math workshop. We have class meetings every morning, but as a TA I do not have a “class” for this. To make up for it I have been having pre/post meetings during our classes. At the beginning we set our goals for the class, and at the end we discuss the good/bad and how to better the class for the next day. Although this is taking a lot of time now, it seems to really make the students think about why we are in the classroom, actions they are taking, and feelings of others.

  4. Jimmie Jo says:

    What would be a way to create social skills learning in the classroom setting and how would you structure it?
    One of the best ways to incorporate teaching social skills learning in the classroom is to address issues as they arise in the classroom. If 2 students are not getting along, I take the time to talk it through with them. We practice how they could have handled the situation differently. I also incorporate cooperative groups and partner activities in order to practice working with others. My school focuses and directly teaches on skill a month. Our counselor comes in every other week to do activities and teach about the different skills associated with character education. The word of the month is self control this month. Our counselor’s lessons will focus on self control…what it is, why it is important, and how a student can practice it. My job is to reinforce her lessons throughout the week. As she leaves our classroom, my students and I create a goal that we will work on until we see her again. Our goal this week was to practice our self control by working on not blurting out the answers. I think that it is important to keep an open dialogue about how we can improve our classroom and become better students and better people.

    • Nicole Gaffney says:

      I love the idea of creating a goal with your students. This is a student centered way We don’t have a “word of the month”, but I do like that idea too. All of my character lessons revolve around our three, school-wide character words: Responsible, Respectful and Caring. I do a lot with these words but definitely think I need to branch out more and introduce others. I think it is important to teach self-control to the whole group as opposed to the one or two that need it (which is what I usually do).

      I also agree with you in the fact that one the best ways to teach social skills is when conflicts arise. Even though it is difficult to stop the entire class during these situations, I often do stop to teach skills like: sharing, using kind words, waiting patiently, etc. I also host group discussions and use literature to teach social skills.

      • Jimmie Jo says:

        There are so many wonderful books out right now to teach social skills! I used “My Mouth is a Volcano” to explain why it is impolite to blurt out answers. It is an excellent resource!

  5. Drew Ibendahl says:

    Do you believe “people reading” is important at the early stages of learning?
    I feel “people reading” is similar to cultural capital. Students who come to school with the knowledge or ability to read the emotions and feelings of others are better able to predict how others around them will respond to different situations. Because of this, these students enter school or begin their learning with a head start over peers who may struggle with this idea. Students who are able to read the emotions of the teacher, understand the mood the teacher is in. They understand that “line in the sand” and may be able to adjust their behavior accordingly. In addition, students who are better able to read their teacher or classmates are often better able to communicate with their teacher or classmates about their own thoughts, feelings, or emotions, as well as the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of their teacher or classmates. Thus, these students are more likely to develop stronger peer relationships. When students understand the intentions of others, especially their peers, they are more likely to be accepted by their peers. These students are more likely to understand when their peers are having a difficult time and do not take their negative words or actions personally. With growth and maturity, the ability to read people may increase, but those students who have this ability at the beginning of their learning, in a sense, begin their learning with something extra like that cultural capital.

  6. Leslie says:

    1. What are some challenges that may arise from having deficits in ToM skills/concepts?

    I have a neighbor boy that is autistic. Daily, I see challenges that arise from having deficits in ToM skills. When his dog comes into my yard, he gets upset because he thinks that I am taking his dog and that she is never coming back. When our dogs play with each other, he thinks that they are fighting and starts yelling at them. He will tell his dog to trot (but he means sit) and when she doesn’t he gets very frustrated and says that she is a bad dog. He wears mismatched shoes often and pees outside in public places like at his sisters soccer game. He is obsessed with John Wayne movies. When his family has people over or when they do something as a family, he will be wanting to watch movies or be carrying around his portable dvd player watching movies by himself the whole time. While they were on a canoe trip, he wanted something that was in the water so he just got out of the canoe and tipped the canoe over on his way out. All of these are examples of challenges that he faces because he has a hard time with ToM skills.

  7. Sinclair says:

    Leslie, I have an adult friend that seems very much like the neighbor you described. He seems to everyone that knows him as the eternal lost soul. He listens to a different drummer than everyone else. He is smartest person I have ever met, yet despite years and years of college never graduated (he would read the entire textbook the night before a test and make an A). He has always been the most socially awkward person. When that movie Rainman came out it was just like him only he manages to somehow get around in the world. He could have been anything he wanted, but his lack of social skill has made his incredible mental skills a detriment. Once we went on a canoe trip and he jumped off a high bridge into very shallow water and was badly injured because he did not bend his knees. Another time he bought a horse, but never feed or watered it. The humane society rescued it and cited him to court, but the judge let him off with a fine because he did not seem to understand that you must feed an animal. I wonder if someone had taken time to help him when he was a child with his inability to read others like anonymous described above, would he have fared better as an adult.

    • Jimmie Jo says:

      I teach 1st grade and have seen many students on the autistic spectrum make great strides in their social behavior. Early intervention is key!

  8. Janet says:

    1.Have you ever worked with a student who struggles with ToM concepts? If so, how did you help the child overcome the difficulties?

    I have also worked with students who struggle with ToM concepts. A couple of years ago, I had a group of students working on a variety of social skills. The speech pathologist and I co-taught the group to work on pragmatic language skills. We were having a very difficult time with one student in particular. He always seemed to be critical of others, quickly pointing out the flaws or weaker areas of other students, and frequently used demeaning language with his peers. When we attempted to bring this behavior to his attention, he would become very defensive and was not able to reflect on his own behavior/actions. After much discussion, we decided to video tape the class and use it as an educational tool. We taped the class giving oral demonstrations and sure enough, our friend made negative and demeaning comments, scowled at others when they struggled, and was unable to provide positive feedback to peers at the end of the presentation. After class, we sat down with this student and played the video, planning to point out the areas of concern. However, we didn’t need to say one thing. While watching the video, we could see he saw himself through different eyes for the first time. He actually got tears in his eyes while watching the video and we realized he had some insight into the behavior we had been trying to point out to him verbally the whole time. We continued to use videos to point out positive and negative social interactions (he wasn’t always in them…we also used movie clips and videos of others). His behavior didn’t change over night and it is something he will have to continue to work on throughout his life, but the videos made a huge difference and gave him the opportunity to learn about social skills in a way that made sense to him.

  9. Karen says:

    Have you ever worked with a student who struggles with ToM concepts? If so, how did you help the child overcome the difficulties?

    Like a few others who have posted here I have had some students who have struggled with ToM concepts. Many of the students I have worked with who have difficulty with ToM concepts are on the autism spectrum. There is one student that I currently work with how has autism and definitely struggles with ToM. He works very much in black and whites, there are no shades of gray and everything is very logical. He definitely struggles with making friends and when he is with a group of students he often misreads people and situations. Despite his difficulties last year we had a great moment. This student and another student had been partners for a fitness test. When this student, “Tim” told the other student his test was over that student got mad and was upset. That afternoon Tim went to the social worker and told her that he thought the other students was mad at him and he wanted to explain to the other student why he was called out of the test. The social worker went to get the other student and prepared to facilitate the conversation. Without so much as a word from the social worker Tim went on to apologize to the other student and explained that his mind works like a camera and he was sure that the student did not perform the task correctly. Tim did a great job and showed some social skills that he had been lacking until that point. I think one of the keys to Tim’s success, which he is building on this year, comes from the social skills lunch group he was referred into. In this social skills group they teach about emotions, thoughts, feelings, and different reactions. Having this direct instruction with a small group of students who are also learning social skills has tremendously helped him.

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