Theory of Mind: Information for Teachers
Submitted By: Michelle Peterson
From Chapter 9: Social Cognition
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 http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/tool-kits/asperger-syndrome-and-high-functioning-autism-tool-kit/executive-functioni) 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 http://www.education.com/reference/article/theory-of-mind/
Avise J.C, Ayala F.J., Conde C., Lombardo J.C., (2013). In the light of Evolution VII: The Human Mental Machinery. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/110/Supplement_2/10339.full
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 http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/tool-kits/asperger-syndrome-and-high-functioning-autism-tool-kit/executive-functioni
Goldstein, T.R and Winner, E. Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind. JOURNAL OF COGNITION AND DEVELOPMENT, 13(1):19–37. Retrieved from http://webpage.pace.edu/tgoldstein/Site/Publications_files/GoldsteinWinner11EnhancingEmpathy_JoCD.pdf
Theory of Mind, Skills in the Classroom. University of Hertfordshire. Published June 17, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.sciencenewsline.com/articles/2010061700008917.html
- Have you ever worked with a student who struggles with ToM concepts? If so, how did you help the child overcome the difficulties?
- Do you believe “people reading” is important at the early stages of learning?
- What are some challenges that may arise from having deficits in ToM skills/concepts?
- What would be a way to create social skills learning in the classroom setting and how would you structure it?