Theory of Mind and Children Essay

Theory of mind is an important concept to understand as educators of children in the early years as it is developed through children’s interactions with their peers, families, educators and diverse environments (Whites, Hayes and Livesey, 2010) Theory of mind can be defined as the understanding of mental states, such as belief, desire and knowledge, that enables us to explain and predict other’s behaviour (Miller, 2006). It is the ability to perceive what another person might be thinking or might know (Whites, Hayes and Livesey, 2010 ).

This essay will examine the influence that language has on Theory of mind, using four research articles, which identify different methods and results used. According to Slade and Ruffman (2005) language influence on Theory of mind is the most important research as it can teach us about children’s early cognitive skills, their language ability and how much they really understand. It has become a focal point in research of developmental psychology in young children over the years (Hale and Tager-Flusberg, 2003).

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Grazzani and Ornaghi’s (2012) focus was based on determining if children in middle childhood had the ability to use language in their daily life with terminologies that are familiar in their local region. This study involved 110 children from the ages of 9 to 11 (Grazzani and Ornaghi, 2012). Within their design they had six tasks/tests for the children to complete, five of which were measures for the child’s technical ability with right or wrong answers and one a narrative task that the child that examined the child’s psychological lexicon (Miller, 2006).

These tasks that the children had to complete showed how a child’s comprehension for psychological lexicon, or terminology commonly used in the area that the study was taken place in, continues to by highly significant in the children as they grow through to middle childhood (Grazzani and Ornaghi, 2012). The cross-sectional design included 6 measures that involve the children complete. These are a verbal ability test where children are being assessed on their understanding of metacognitive language, frequency and type of psychological lexicons used (Grazzani and Ornaghi, 2012).

A test of emotion comprehension which entails children are breaking down information and then explaining what they have understood from it (Grazzani and Ornaghi, 2012). A test for metacognitive and metalinguistic verb comprehension, which is similar to the emotion comprehension but has stories where children need to discuss the verbs used (Grazzani and Ornaghi, 2012). Finally a task called ‘Describe-a-friend’ where the children use language to describe and talk about a friend and how close they are (Grazzani and Ornaghi, 2012).

There are a few limitations in this method design used. As this was a short study, the result are limited to what the participants abilities are and how they could grow further with the research that they are being a part of (Miller, 2006). Another limitation that needs mentioning is how without the prior knowledge of the children’s ability they could not commence the research appropriately as the children would not have been able to complete or take part in particular tasks or tests without the prior knowledge of what was expected of them (Grazzani and Ornaghi, 2012).

This research study contributes to the body of knowledge on the topic on theory of mind as it suggests that from a young age children develop their understandings of emotional language and learn early on how to vocalize their emotions or how to describe the emotions of others. This is seen through the microgenetic format used (White, Hayes and Levees, 2012). The main focus in Hale and Tager-Flusberg (2003) microgenetic study investigates the relationship between children’s development of language and theory of mind.

This study involving sixty preschoolers aged two years and then again when these children where four years old, used standardized tests, self-reports and interviews as the main methods in determining the link between theory of mind and language (Hale and Flusberg, 2003). The research was completed in two sessions with a two year gap in between, they been divided into three sections where children were organized into groups according to their pretest results. These groups went on for thirty minutes and only occurred twice during the first stage of the testing.

These tests included a false belief test which required the children to answer a number of control questions correctly. The false-belief transfer task and the standard appearance reality task allowed the children to question responses and actions (White, Hayes and Levees, 2010). There was also a sentential test which entailed the children to differentiate two stories with what is written and what is actually happening in the image they are presented with. This allowed the children to express their opinions on what is occurring in the verbal story and in the image of the story (Hale nd Flusberg, 2003). Finally there was a relative clause test, where children had to describe one of the two stories they were told and include any of the relative clause information in their responses (Hale and Flusberg, 2003) A limitation for this study was the fact that they did not follow up on the effects of the training that they did with their participants which would have given them a new set of results in the way that the children had developed in that short period of time with the training their received (Hale and Flusberg, 2003).

Although they did do this for the pre and post test, if they had included the training into the results they would have more detail on the development of the children. This was similar to the research completed by Slade and Ruffman (2005), where children completed the same tests twice but with a six month gap in between them, which later highlights the link between language and theory of mind. The main idea in Slade and Ruffman (2012) longitudinal study investigates the relationship between children’s development of language and its influence on Theory of Mind.

The participants included in this study were forty four preschool children, aged between three and four and a half years of age. The participants completed a range of tasks twice with a six month gap in between (Slade and Ruffman, 2005). These following tasks and tests were completed in a 20 minute block for each session. These tasks included a warm up, where children were asked to point at images on a sheet of paper.

Then questions asked like ‘point at the ball’, had extra information attached to them, such as ‘point at the ball, that is under the table’ so children had to classify which ball they needed to point at (Slade and Ruffman, 2005). The language test involved assessing the children’s, semantics linguistic concepts, syntax word order and syntax embedded clauses. These all involved assessing the children’s ability to comprehend sentence structures, image representations and special awareness terms, such as below, above or in between (Slade and Ruffman, 2005).

There are also two Theory of mind false belief tasks which involved the children completing two unexpected transfer tasks and one unexpected contents task (Slade and Ruffman, 2005) The last measure used was a working memory task. Where children were given a list of words and the children would have to read these words backwards, for example ‘a, it, is, an, up’ had to be read ‘up, an, is, it, a’ (Slade and Ruffman, 2005).

All of these tests turned out to have a positive correlation, as the children were all able to complete all sections with understanding of what they were asked to do, the language they needed to use and what the researchers used (Slade and Ruffman, 2005). This correlation shows that the bidirectional relationship between language and theory of mind are parallel to the idea that syntax and semantics both have an influence on false belief understandings (Slade and Ruffman, 2005) A limitation of the study includes how they only did two sessions with the children over a six month period.

They needed extend the research period more than a year, they would have received detailed results on how the children developed and changed as the study continued showing how strong the link between language development and ToM really is (Farrar and Maag, 2002). In comparison to this, Farrar and Maag (2002) have a longitudinal design which includes observational techniques for measuring as well as questionnaires. There are two separate times of researching; these were when the children were 2 years old and then again when the children were 4 (Farrar and Maag, 2002).

During the first half of the research the mothers of the participants were given a questionnaire to complete about their children called MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories (MDCI) (Farrar and Maag, 2002). The MDCI makes it possible for researchers to gain a detailed idea on the children’s prior experiences in regards to language and ToM before being a part of the research (MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories, 2003).

Once this questionnaire was completed the mothers and their children were asked to have a naturalistic play session in a lab specifically set up for the children to play with (Farrar and Maag, 2002). This was done so the researchers are able to evaluate the children’s level of communication, language and ToM and form their own opinions and responses to the MCDI, which would create a truer calculation of a child’s communication skills and abilities (Farrar and Maag, 2002).

In the second half of this study, two years later when the children are four years of age, there are four tasks for the children to complete which are based on finding their understanding of conflicting mental representations or false belief. This involves children to understand the appearance of reality, in relation to representational change (Farrar and Maag, 2002). The participants also completed a verbal memory test, where they read sentences that increased in length as they got them correct (Farrar and Maag, 2002).

The Peabody picture vocabulary test (PPVT) was a measure used to assess the comprehension of vocabulary in children. This also correlated well with measures of child intelligence (Farrar and Maag, 2002) The result from this study shows how the association with ToM and Language development are highly noticeable in young children, and continue to be notable as the children grow and develop (Farrar and Maag, 2002). It was also found that the grammatical development that children go through is linked to ToM and its development as children are able to show cognition through the use of their extending vocabulary (Farrar and Maag, 2002).

This study did not allow for the directional influence on ToM and language (Farrar and Maag, 2002). For this to occur, they would need to have included more tests that explored both of these areas further to create an in depth report on their influences (Farrar and Maag, 2002) The implications for the four research articles demonstrate the importance of assessing children level of ability in their first years of schooling as this will then make it possible for educators of children to create programs beneficial and meaningful for the children in their classrooms (White, Hayes and Livesey, 2010).

Also how with the use of a range of methods can show a variety of results that can show teachers what areas children may need more assistance in as the correlation of the results may bring up an area that they may have missed during standardized testing (Symons, Fossum and Collins, 2006). This will create meaningful lesson plans for the children as they will be able to gain more knowledge from what they have learnt as educators have facilitated for the children’s needs (Miller, 2006).

This essay has examined the influence that language has on Theory of mind, using four research articles, which identify different methods and results used. These articles have shed light on the point that through the use of methodology, we are able to see the influence language has on Theory of Mind and how it is focal in being able to create programs for children as with the use of the methods, teachers are able to create meaningful lessons for the children that are related to their level of ability (White, Hayes and Livesey, 2010).