A promising study suggests teachers can train 8-year-olds in Theory of Mind

Teacher Calling on StudentBy Christian Jarrett

Theory of Mind is psychologist-speak for our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to recognise that their thoughts and beliefs can be different from our own. Children begin to develop this ability around age three to four: it starts off fairly basic, in terms of understanding people can hold false beliefs, becoming more sophisticated as they get older, eventually taking in concepts like double bluffing and faux pas.

Of course, as with most things, kids vary in how adept they are at Theory of Mind, and there’s evidence that those with more skills in this area benefit in all sorts of ways, from their relationships to school achievement. Importantly, experiments have shown that this isn’t something that’s fixed, rather children can be trained fairly easily to improve their Theory of Mind by spending time talking about and reflecting upon characters’ perspectives in social scenarios.

These previous training studies have been contrived experiments delivered by researchers with the sessions conducted outside of normal classes. A promising but preliminary new study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology has made an important leap, taking the training to a more real-life setting, showing that a brief teacher-led intervention was able to boost eight- to nine-year-olds’ Theory of Mind, with the benefits still demonstrable two months later.

Federico Bianco and Serena Lecce trained four teachers at four different primary schools how to deliver a Theory of Mind intervention that involved the children reading about different social situations, writing answers to questions about the thoughts and perspectives of the different characters, and then discussing the stories in groups. The stories involved misunderstandings, sarcasm, faux pas and a double bluff. The teachers were trained to provide feedback to correct the pupils when necessary. The teachers also learned how to deliver a control intervention that was similar but involved reflecting on physical aspects of stories: for instance, a typical question might ask what materials an architect should use for tall buildings.

The Theory of Mind training – four sessions of 50 minutes – was given by the teachers to one of their usual classes, and the control training of equal length to another class. This meant 34 eight-year-olds received the Theory of Mind training, and 38 acted as controls. Meanwhile, the pupils completed various tests before the training, such as verbal ability  and executive training tests, and answered questions about their family background. Critically, before the training, one week afterwards and two months afterwards, they also completed a test of their Theory of Mind skills, based on their comprehension of three stories involving double bluff, persuasion and misunderstanding.

All the children showed improvements in their Theory of Mind test performance over the course of the study, but the children who received the Theory of Mind training showed greater gains than the control group. And while the two groups showed equal Theory of Mind skills pre-training, after they’d completed their training, the Theory of Mind training group were superior at both the one week and two month follow up. The apparent benefits of the Theory of Mind training remained after controlling in the analysis for the influence of other abilities such as verbal skill or other factors like family background.

Bianco and Lecce said their results suggest teachers “can successfully promote their 8- to 9-year-old pupils’ Theory of Mind development during regular teaching hours” and that they hoped this might be the “first step of a new line of research aimed at translating Theory of Mind research into school life practices.”

On a more sceptical note, there wasn’t a no-treatment control condition, so we can’t tell for sure whether the Theory of Mind training boosted Theory of Mind or if the physical concepts training  was for some reason detrimental to Theory of Mind. Also, the test of Theory of Mind was remarkably similar to the training (all scenarios were derived from the  so-called Strange Stories Task), so it’s perhaps not surprising improvements were shown in the intervention group. It would have been more impressive if the training had led to improvements in Theory of Mind that were tested in a different way. Finally, this study wasn’t able to show that there were any follow-on benefits from the apparent increases in Theory of Mind abilities enjoyed by the pupils who received the Theory of Mind intervention. If future research could show the training leads to tangible benefits to children’s relationships or schoolwork, for example, that would be very exciting.

Translating child development research into practice: Can teachers foster children’s theory of mind in primary school?

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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