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Attainment of Developmental Norms on Theory of Mind: Associations with Cognitive, Language, and Social Skills

Sat, March 23, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Hilton Baltimore, Floor: Level 2, Key 11

Integrative Statement

Theory of mind represents a child’s understanding that others have different beliefs than they do, and this understanding improves reliably with development (Wellman, 1990). Theory of mind development is connected to children’s social competence (Qu, et al., 2015). For example, young children who have not achieved theory of mind are at relatively higher risk for chronic behavior problems (Olson, Choe, Sameroff, 2017).
Additionally, there is a relationship between theory of mind and other skills including emotion understanding, executive function, and language, but the direction of this relationship is still under debate (McAlister & Peterson, 2013; Milligan, et al., 2007; Weimer, et al., 2012). Many studies examining theory of mind select Caucasian children from families from middle-to-upper income backgrounds (Razza & Blair, 2009). Practitioners who work with children from low-income backgrounds need relevant information about how theory of mind relates with children’s early school adjustment, especially for children who may struggle. Therefore, the present study asked:
 RQ1: In a high-poverty sample, how many children in early elementary school are “at expected level” in a normed theory of mind measure?
 RQ2: Does attaining “at expected level” theory of mind predict whether children have relatively more behavior problems?
 RQ3: Are children’s emotion understanding, executive function, or language associated with being “at expected level” in theory of mind?
Method. The sample included N = 241 children followed for 2 years. By 1st and 2nd grade, N = 214 and N =172, respectively (age range = 4.5 to 8.4; over 90% African American and on lunch subsidy). Child assessments were conducted in the summer/fall of kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade entry; teacher reports of children’s behavior were collected each spring.
The main outcome of interest was performance translated into meeting published age norms on the NEuroPSYchological Assessment (NEPSY-II; Korkman, et al., 1998) Theory of Mind subtest. Assessments also included: emotion understanding (Emotion Matching Task, Morgan, Izard, & King, 2009; and Assessment of Children’s Emotional Skills, Mavroveli et al., 2009); executive function (Head-Toes-Knees-Shoulders Task, McClelland, Cameron, et al., 2014); and language (Naming Vocabulary and Verbal Comprehension subtests of the Differential Ability Scales-II, DAS-II; Elliot, 2008). Teacher-reported behavior problems were measured with subscales from the Social Skills Information System (SSIS; Gresham & Elliott, 2008).
Results. Regarding RQ1, 30 kindergarteners fell below age norms on theory of mind; 33 were below norms in 1st grade and 21 in 2nd grade. Regarding RQ2, there was a significant difference between the two groups of kindergarteners for teacher-reported self-control and internalizing problem behaviors; all measures were in the expected direction (Table 1). Theory of mind was not related to behavior problems in 1st grade (2nd grade will be analyzed for the conference).
Regarding RQ3, logistic regressions indicated that having better verbal comprehension was associated with a greater odds of attaining developmental norms on theory of mind for kindergarteners; whereas both verbal comprehension and executive function predicted theory of mind attainment in 1st grade. Emotion understanding and executive function predicted theory of mind attainment in 2nd grade (Table 2).

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