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theory in mind

During a conversation with another person, we are constantly modifying our responses based on the feedback we receive. This includes not only the other person’s words, but their facial expressions, actions, and gestures. Our response to a person who is crying will differ greatly from our response to a person who is laughing. Making inferences about another person is foundational to communicating effectively. This ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and to another person is known as Theory of Mind (ToM). Simply, ToM is having a theory about another person’s state of mind – their intentions, desires, knowledge, and beliefs.

Historically, it was believed that ToM developed when a child was around 4 or 5 years old. However, we now know that the foundational building blocks of ToM should actually begin developing during a baby’s first few months as they learn to copy their caregiver’s mouth movements and facial expressions, demonstrating an awareness of the world around them (Gallagher & Hutto, 2008). By the time a child reaches 9 or 12 months, you may notice they are pointing to or gazing towards objects in order to gain another person’s attention. This is known as joint attention and is a vital building block of ToM. At this stage, caregivers contribute by having quality interaction with their child through using child-directed speech (over-articulating, speaking with high pitch, repeating words), gestures, and emphasizing emotions. The more opportunity a child has for interaction, the more a child is able to learn to make appropriate inferences.

theory in mindIn order to one day have awareness of another’s emotions, a child must first gain awareness of their own emotions and sense of self. This awareness should typically start developing around 18-24 months of age (Owens, 2012). Between ages 2 and 3, a child should be able to identify basic emotions they see in pictures. Reading books with your child while labeling emotions throughout the story is one way to stimulate their development in this area (see right). By 3 or 4 years old, children should begin to take on the roles of others in pretend play (Nicolopoulou & Richer, 2007). Caregivers can contribute by encouraging the child to assign roles and describe emotions in pretend play.

Finally, as the child reaches age 4 or 5 years old, they should begin to portray skills that reflect their awareness of the mental states of others. It is at this stage that a child should also be able to pass a false-belief test. A false belief test could consist of a pretend character placing an item in a red box, then leaving the area. Another pretend character enters and places the item into a blue box. When the first character re-enters, the child would be asked, “will the first character believe the item is in the blue box or the red box?” If the child answers, “the red box,” even though they know the item is currently in the blue box, this would indicate that the child has an understanding of false belief, which is also a strong predictor of their ability to have effective communication with others (Resches and Perez Pereira, 2007).

We use Theory of Mind skills everyday to modify our responses and communicate effectively with others. However, this is a particular skill that those on the Autism Spectrum struggle to develop. Even if someone can articulate well and has a strong vocabulary, if they do not have a developed Theory of Mind, they will struggle to have functional and effective communication. Whether or not someone has a disorder or delay, a Speech Language Pathologist is able to determine the rate at which a child is developing and address Theory of Mind skills.

Author: Gabrielle Stowe, Intern at Dogwood Developmental Therapy


Gallagher, S. and Hutto, D. 2008. Understanding others through primary interaction and narrative practice. In: J. Zlatev, T. Racine, C. Sinha and E. Itkonen (eds). The Shared Mind: Perspectives on Intersubjectivity (17-38). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Nicolopoulou & Richer (2007). From actors to agents to persons: The development of character representation in young children’s narratives.  Child Development, 78, 412-429

Owens (2012). Language Development: An Introduction: 8th Edition. Pearson Education Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.  

Resches & Perez Pereira (2007).  Referential communication abilities and Theory of Mind development in preschool children.  Journal of Child Language, 23, 219-239.