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The long-term impact of early social cognition & Theory of Mind

There are a few aspects of child development that teachers, parents and carers often talk about when it comes to nursery-age children. These include aspects of development such as the physical, social, and emotional growth of a child, early literacy and numeracy abilities, or self-regulation skills. However, an area of development that has been relatively overlooked is that of social cognition. It includes a complex set of skills that are crucial for development and have long-lasting impact, well beyond childhood. In this post, we briefly discuss the basic dimensions of social cognition in early childhood, and summarise some recent findings that have come out of our work at Alphablocks Research Lab in collaboration with leading academics.

What is social cognition?

Social cognitive abilities begin to develop in infancy (in fact, social interaction begins in the womb) and continue to evolve throughout childhood and adolescence. They include skills like maintaining eye contact, following another’s gaze, recognising emotions on other people’s faces, or mimicking what someone else does (sticking the tongue out, like mum does, or smiling back at her). Prompting an adult to play with a toy, or pointing at a toy on the floor for dad to see and pick up is so fundamental (starting to happen around 9 months) that Michael Tomasello has called it the “Nine-Month Revolution”.

These skills are precursors to developing empathy (on the ’emotional side’ of development), while on the ‘cognitive side’ they help a child acquire so-called Theory of Mind (ToM). This particular aspect of social cognition evolves gradually from as young as 1 to 2 years and continues to develop throughout childhood. Many children start to express themselves in a way that demonstrates this ability under certain situations, and this shows up more prominently between 3 and 5 years. But what exactly is ToM, and why does it matter?

Theory of Mind: an example

Imagine you are in a room with your child, playing together. The child’s mum comes in holding a cup of tea. Mum joins in your play for a few minutes. Then she leaves her cup on a desk, and exits the room. Your child has been watching, and has seen mum place the cup on the desk before getting out of the room.

Now imagine that you take the cup from the desk, and you hide it inside one of the drawers! That’s right, you intentionally hide the cup (and your child has seen you do this). Now, here is a sort of ‘test’ for ToM ability:

Mum comes back into the room. When your child sees her come in, you ask a simple question – “Where will mum look for the cup?

Of course, the practicalities of doing this in a clear, experimentally unambiguous way (stopping the play, asking at the right time, without confusing your child, etc. etc.) mean that this may not be the best test to try at home! But there are many other tests like this that have been done experimentally with thousands of children at various ages. The principle is what matters, and the point is that many children below the age of 3 will not be able to work out that mum expects her cup to be on the desk (and not in the drawer). In other words, most children under 3 will not know that mum still thinks her cup is on the desk.

They tend to think that she thinks her cup is in the drawer. In technical terms, we say that they have not yet acquired ‘false belief understanding’, namely, they don’t yet understand that other people have different beliefs (and thoughts, emotions, etc.) from their own; and that, additionally, these independent beliefs may be false.

But, somehow, and quite remarkably so, around age 4 to 5 years, most children tend to understand that mum holds a false belief when she comes back into the room (a false expectation in relation to the whereabouts of her cup). They come to realise that other people have different thoughts from them, and that other people ‘see’ things (in their mind’s eye) in very different ways. In psychological terms, they formulate an internal ‘theory’ of the existence of ‘other minds’.

Crucially, neurodiverse children present with certain deficits in ToM development and social cognition. But the long-term impact of these social cognitive skills and abilities, beyond childhood and into adolescence and young adulthood, have not been explored sufficiently. The academic work that Alphablocks Nursery School helps carry out is currently focused on this relatively unexplored areas of research.

Social cognitive abilities at age 5 years and risk-taking behaviours in adolescence

Adolescence is a period of heightened social and emotional development, and there is a marked increase in often damaging and potentially traumatising risk-taking behaviours. There are various reasons for this developmentally normative transition, including aspects of hormonal physiology and brain development. According to a recent news piece, adjusting successfully one’s behaviour in the face of new risks in the environment is an essential skill during adolescence, as it helps individuals manage challenging situations.

Adolescence is a period of transition from childhood to adulthood. During this time, individuals face a wide range of physical, emotional, and social changes. To respond to these changes successfully, adolescents need to be able to evaluate the potential risks and benefits of their actions and make appropriate choices. Risk adjustment involves assessing the likelihood and possible consequences of a particular action or behavior, and then making a decision based on that evaluation. In a unique study, researchers now discovered that adolescents’ ability to adjust their behavior to changing risks can be traced back to their social cognitive skills during childhood, specifically, their “theory of mind.”

Childhood Theory of Mind Predicts Adolescent Risk Adjustment,

In particular, in this article, we have shown that ToM and social cognitive abilities developed in childhood can have a long-term impact on the strategies adolescents use to adjust their behaviour under risky conditions. As a result, “inflexible and maladaptive risk-taking in adolescence could be prevented with the appropriate support of ToM and broader social cognitive skills in childhood.” As we summarise at the end of this publication,

Early years education and primary school curricula could incorporate more group projects and activities that promote mirroring and imitation, joint attention, mental state talk, and pretend play, all of which can enhance ToM.

Superior social cognitive abilities in childhood are associated with better reward-seeking strategies in adolescence: evidence for a Social-Motivational Flexibility Model, Dimitris I. Tsomokos & Eirini Flouri (2023)

In a paper published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, we provide evidence for the longitudinal association between early social cognition and mental health from age 7 through to age 17 years. In that work, we show that superior ToM abilities, estbalished by age 5 years, predict better mental health trajectories in that 10-year span from middle childhood to late adolescence. This finding further strenghtens our view that educational settings should be paying attention to the development of these skills from birth to five years. Of course, these skills can (and should) also be strenghtened at home. In fact, meaningful and sustaining interactions between a parent and their child have a lot to do with ToM and social cognition, on either side. In psychological terms, this set of skills and abilities is also known as ‘Mentalisation’. Here is Peter Fonagy, Chief Executive of the Anna Freud Centre, London, talking about the importance of mentalisation in the parent-child relationship.

Prof. Peter Fonagy, Head of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London, Chief Executive at the Anna Freud Centre, Consultant to the Child and Family Program at the Menninger Dept of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine

Alphablocks Nursery School employs a hybrid educational approach, selecting the most appropriate elements of various pedagogies, and maintaining a high level of commitment to children’s socio-emotional and socio-cognitive development.