Minds in the Making: Perspective Taking

Do you recall a time when you said something which was misinterpreted or misconstrued, when you felt misunderstood or silenced, when you felt off-put by an advertisement?

This month we continue our analysis of preschool children’s “minds in the making,” as we now explore the second critical life skill needed by every child. Last month we focused upon Focus and Self Control; this month we move on to the skill of Perspective Taking. Ellen Galinsky, author and former president of National Association for the Education of Young Children, sheds some light on the skill of Perspective Taking in modern society. Think of a time in which you said something which was misinterpreted or misconstrued, a time at work when you felt misunderstood or silenced, a time when you felt off-put by an advertisement, or a time when you felt your opinions and decisions (politics, religion, parenting, etc) were being questioned. Perspective Taking permeates all aspects of human relationships.

Perspective Taking begins with learning to understand each other and to interpret the behavior and emotion expressed by another person. Astonishingly, infants almost innately show a “people sense.” Robert Frantz, an infant development researcher in the 1960s, studied the ways in which infants responded to the behavior of others. He worked with infants who were being held by their parent and had the parent reach for familiar or novel toys behind a puppet stage. As early as five to six months of age, infants would attend to the goal of the behavior (the expectation of a toy being found) over the physical action of reaching. While this seems a bit unrelated at first glance, what this shows is that the infant at five to six months of age understood the intention of the parent’s behavior and thus began to interpret the behavior.

In another study of early Perspective Taking, Alison Gopnik at the University of California- Berkeley worked with toddlers to determine the degree to which these young children could begin to take perspective. Researchers taste-tested crackers and broccoli in front of the toddlers and showed exaggerated like or dislike reactions to the two different foods. These researchers then asked the toddler to “give me which food I like.” Toddlers as young as 18 months of age were able to provide researchers with the correct food based upon the demonstrated reaction. While this is again not true perspective taking, the early threads are evident in the interpretation of behavior and emotional reaction of another.

True theory-of-mind, or the ability to understand that others may think differently because of their knowledge or lack of knowledge, does not begin to emerge until closer to age 4. It is at this age that children come to understand that someone else may believe something different than themselves. The classic study for this involves filling a crayon box full of paper clips and having children look inside. They expect to find crayons but instead find paper clips and are surprised. Researchers then ask, “What will your friend think is inside this box when he sees it all closed up like this?” At or around age 4, children can fairly consistently tell you that their friend will expect to find crayons and will be surprised to find paper clips. Theory-of-mind is thus set and true perspective taking has emerged.

So, can perspective taking development be supported? Yes! Below are some useful tips to help you guide your child as he gains perspective taking ability.

  • Model and verbally talk through instances where someone may have a different opinion or perspective than your own. Do a talk-aloud of how you and another or how two characters in a book may not see things the same way.
  • Teach children to be accepting of differences in others as well as to value their own uniqueness. We focus a lot of time on helping our children appreciate how special they are, which is critically important. Equally important, however, is diversity appreciation.
  • Help children feel heard, understood, and appreciated. Even when your child’s wants may be denied, acknowledge that you know what he or she is asking. Verify that you are clear in his request and then simply explain your perspective. This helps your child learn that his opinion was important and heard even if not acted upon.
  • Talk about emotions. Use emotional vocabulary, explain to your child how others may be feeling, explain how you are feeling, and help him or her label their own emotions. Include discussion of facial expression, body language, and situation. All of this helps your child begin to see things from his own view and from the perspective of others.

Lauren Starnes, PhD- Manager of Curriculum and Instruction

Chesterbrook Academy Royersford is part of Nobel Learning Communities, Inc., a national network of more than 180 nonsectarian private schools, including preschools, elementary schools and middle schools in 15 states across the nation. Chesterbrook Academy provides high quality private education, with small class sizes, caring and skilled teachers and attention to individual learning styles. They also offer before- and after-school care and the Camp Zone® summer program. Chesterbrook Academy in Royersford, Pa.  is a part of Nobel Learning Communities, Inc.   Please visit our website Royersford.ChesterbrookAcademy.com  for more information about our school and how you can enroll your child today.

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