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Contemporary Perspectives on Research in Theory of Mind in Early Childhood Education

reviewed by Ysaaca Axelrod - July 23, 2014

coverTitle: Contemporary Perspectives on Research in Theory of Mind in Early Childhood Education
Author(s): Olivia N. Saracho
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 162396511X, Pages: 438, Year: 2013
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This edited volume brings together research on Theory of Mind (ToM) that explores the history and development of research on young children’s understanding of the mind, the complexities (and occasional contradictions) of the research, gaps in our understanding of ToM, areas for further research, as well as implications for early childhood education. The book is divided into seven parts and each tackles a different area of understanding of mind.

Part One is an introduction to research on children’s mind theory and explores the history of the research area and the evolution of a field of study that draws on a variety of disciplines, such as: biology, primatology, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. The author of Chapter One, and volume editor, Olivia N. Saracho, builds an argument for the importance of understanding research that focuses on young children’s understanding of mental states in order to recognize the existing gaps in the field and possible areas for new research, as well as the implications of this research for early childhood education.

Part Two has three chapters that address understanding of mind in early childhood providing a description of what is meant by ToM, research (with detailed descriptions of the tasks used) that suggests when and how children develop an understanding of mental states, and some of the challenges of what the tasks may or may not reveal. Two of the areas of research that the chapters focus on are: research with infants and children’s own understanding of their learning. The research on infants raises questions of how much infants’ responses to tasks reveal an understanding of behavior rather than mental states. The authors’ goal is not to disregard existing research, rather it is to question the results and suggest the need for more in depth understanding of ToM with regard to infants. Similarly, the authors of the chapter on children’s awareness point to some of the challenges in this work and an inconclusive understanding of children’s responses; however, they too stress that the goal is not to discourage this research or work, rather to point to areas that need further investigation.

Part Three focuses on the understanding of mind and assessment issues. These chapters delve into the actual tasks used to determine children’s understanding of ToM, the shifts in children’s responses across the age span, and factors that may influence/affect their responses to tasks. Additionally, these chapters point to particular implications for early childhood education. Some of the most significant findings of these chapters address the importance of the role of language in children’s ability to accomplish the tasks, given the verbal nature of the tasks. In addition, while most of the research on ToM has been done with typically developing children, there are some studies that have looked at children with autism and their responses to the various tasks. Their responses seem to vary depending on the nature of the task, pointing to nuanced differences in what each task measures.

Part Four looks at the understanding of mind in metacognitive and neuroscientific processes. Some of the research in this area, also looks at children with autism and suggests that further research needs to be done in the area of understanding theory of the mind development, given the way that autism spectrum disorder affects social skills. The implications for education of this research point to the need to better understand the social cognitive aspects, given the social nature of learning.

Part Five examines understanding of mind, emotion, and educational representation of relationships. The focus on the chapters in this section is looking at the various ways that ToM affects children’s experiences in school by focusing on social and emotional behaviors with peers and teachers and children’s understanding of teaching and learning. While traditionally children’s success in school focuses on academic progress, these chapters argue that there needs to be an examination of social-cognitive development and the role of ToM in children’s development of academic skills.

Part Six addresses understanding of mind and interaction of social and cultural elements. The chapters in this section start to address some of the issues raised in previous chapters which question the role of culture in ToM and the universality of the development of ToM, and argue that there needs to be research that examines ToM and the tasks used to determine it in cross-cultural settings. The research presented in this part of the volume points to considerable cross-cultural variation; however, these differences are not to be seen as deficits, rather as differences in developmental trajectories due to different experiences, social rules, and child-parent/caregiver discourse and socialization practices. It also points to the need for a broader use of tasks to measure ToM, as the existing tasks might privilege a particular population. Lastly, research also starts to point to factors, such as family context, that might play a role in the development of ToM in children. The authors of this study argue that in the process of helping children develop ToM, we need to look beyond just early childhood education settings and include families.

Part Seven concludes this volume and pulls together the implications across all of the studies in previous chapters to point to some particular areas of future research and some of the complexities of ToM raised by the chapters in the book. As the author states, while there is significant research in the area of ToM, there are also gaps in this research that need to be addressed. One of the gaps addressed is the need for a better understanding of the role of language in ToM development and the role of language in the assessment tools used to determine children’s ToM. Research needs to look more broadly across cultures and disabilities to understand how these play a role in the development of ToM, how they might be factors in differences of children’s understanding of the mind, and the role of environmental, social, and cognitive factors in the development of ToM. To this list I would add a more developed understanding of what ToM might look like in classroom settings across ages and examples from classroom settings. While many of the chapters include implications for early childhood education, none present concrete examples from classroom settings; it is useful to see what these curricular approaches might look like in practice.

This volume is a valuable resource for both those who are already familiar with ToM, as well as those who seek to better understand ToM and its possible implications for early childhood education and educators. Each chapter provides a brief overview of the theory of mind, philosophical underpinnings, and tasks used to determine individuals’ ToM (for example, false-belief tasks). If read all together, these sections appear a bit repetitive, however, it allows for each chapter to stand alone, and a closer read reveals some of the nuanced differences in the theories used within the field of ToM. Furthermore, as a complete volume, the chapters work well together to highlight the complexity of the field and the different approaches that scholars have taken, and need to continue to take, in order to better understand ToM in young children.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 23, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17619, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:57:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Ysaaca Axelrod
    University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    E-mail Author
    YSAACA AXELROD is an assistant professor of Early Childhood Education in the department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies at the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her areas of interest include language and literacy development focusing on young emergent bilinguals. Her most recent publications are in the Journal of Early Childhood Education and Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood.
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