Looking for the Silver Lining

Teaching perspective taking to school aged children

Two Children Playing
Two Children Playing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the things in life I’ve always hated most is being misunderstood. Though it is possible that a silver lining can emerge, misunderstandings can just as easily lead to misery, annoyance, animosity, friend-loss, or even missed opportunity. This is true no matter your age. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could avoid all that? As adults, we have the ability to stand back from awkward situations and take the perspective of the other side, and work towards reaching an understanding. And we do coach our children to do the same. How many times have you heard yourself saying: “Imagine what she felt like, when she lost the toy?” or “How would you feel, if someone grabbed a toy from you?”. As the words flow from your lips though, do you also find yourself questioning whether the child actually hears you, or whether she even understands what you are asking of her? From the looks on my child’s face when she was 3 and even 4 years of age, I suspect that in the heat of the moment she didn’t get it. At five, I am seeing some glimmerings, but still not always in the heat of the moment. It’s usually only after the fact, when we talk later.

The question I address below, along these lines, is whether such efforts are worth it. That is, are there effective ways to teach young children to engage in perspective taking, to help them find that silver lining? It’s not reasonable to expect that children won’t argue, nor to expect that misunderstandings won’t happen. But is it reasonable to expect children to learn how to deal nicely with misunderstandings by teaching them to engage in perspective taking? After all, perspective taking IS a learned skill, that is, just because an adult can do it, doesn’t mean the adult will. The adult needs to learn. So when is the best time to learn?

What does it take, to take a perspective?

When social misunderstandings cause emotions to run high, problem solving becomes impulsive, especially with little ones. The younger the child, the less “brain-space” available to self-regulate. That’s why provoked toddlers push and bite, upset preschoolers grab and claim “it was mine first” and elementary playground skirmishes escalate. In the early years of life, the number of things children can keep in mind at once is quite limited (indexed by a measurement called digit span):

  • 2-year-olds: 2 items
  • 5-year-olds: 4 items
  • 7-year-olds: 5 items
  • 9-year-olds: 6 items

It takes a long time to get up to adult levels of “brain space” – not till the end of adolescence! Brain-space limitations are due, in part, to brain development. As the brain matures throughout childhood, skills gradually improve in kind and the area that supports the opposite of misunderstanding, effective perspective taking, along with emotion regulation and inhibition, is the last to fully mature.

Let’s think for a moment about what that means, in terms of a young child’s ability to “act nicely” in a stressful situation, say, when one child is making a move on another child’s toy.

Imagine: two 3-year-olds, sharing space in a playroom, both “cooking” in the play kitchen. One is stirring a pot, the other is shuffling foodstuffs in and out of the play fridge. The pot-stirrer puts her spoon down and turns to grab some more items. She grabs one of her playmate’s foodstuffs and her playmate grabs for the other’s spoon. What happens? Chaos! One moment the two are playing nicely, the next they are wailing and pushing. Why don’t they “use their words” and share?! Because of “brain-space” limitations. Here’s what’s likely in their heads:

3-year-old Pot stirrer: “I am making soup,” “This is so fun!” and “I want to add more food – there’s some right there…”

3-year-old Food sorter: “I am putting groceries away,” “this is so fun!” and “I want to cook now, I need a spoon – there’s one right there…”

When one child interrupts the other’s inner dialogue, brain space capacity is reached and exceeded by the emotional response to the disruption, leaving neither with the ability to effectively problem solve. To “use their words” they each need more capacity to allow them to calm their emotional flare, think about what to say, then say it. Instead, the emotion caused by the play-disruption takes over and they push. Or they DO use their words, and they scream “Mine!” Indeed, when we prompt them to “use their words” what we mean by that is to ask about sharing. For little ones like those in my characterization, a request to share is quite often beyond them.

The brain-space limitations of the youngest of preschoolers means that we shouldn’t expect much self-regulation, though caregivers can help them learn what it feels like to say the words, “may I share?”, or “treat others like I want to be treated,” or “let’s take turns.” Caregivers need to be right on top of such little ones though, to be there to support them in when and how to use those phrases. That is, little ones need heavy scaffolding.  As children enter into elementary school though, their brain space does begin to open up enough to allow for more deliberate self-control. But children still need to learn how.

Nurturing growth in perspective taking.

The leading expert on perspective taking, Robert Selman, has devoted his life’s-work to understanding the development of perspective taking and to figuring out how to nurture it (see an interview with him on this topic here, or check out his book on my goodreads shelf). I’ve been aware of his work for some time (it’s in all the text books), but not followed it in great detail until recently, when about a year ago (last spring) the principal of a local charter school contacted me to talk about ways in which perspective taking skills could be nurtured in her classrooms. In staff meetings, she and her teachers had come to agreement on the fact that the skill of perspective taking was important to nurture: doing so not only would provide opportunities for smoother social interactions in and out of the classroom, but for older students would become an integral part of their education. To become an informed citizen of the world, one who respects diversity, acts as a good steward to the environment, and as a conscientious community member, one must be adept at perspective taking. But they weren’t sure how to teach it. That’s where I came in.

We discussed the principal’s vision for a curriculum plan where teachers could begin to deliberately nurture their students’ perspective taking in age-appropriate ways. I left the meeting with an action plan. The plan involved building an empirically supported set of materials teachers could easily implement throughout the school year and parent education materials that could be sent home.

At the start of the next semester, I assigned two senior thesis students to the project, and we dug in. The students sorted and sifted through the research literature, wrote a lengthy paper on what they learned, and together we brainstormed on what shape the curriculum should take then got busy, our creative juices flowing. I recently delivered the fruits of our labor to the principal and next year she will roll out the program.

Our curriculum plan.

The aim with the whole package is to present fun, age-appropriate, realistic activities to help students push their thinking beyond the end of their own noses. The idea is that perspective taking, like any other skill, takes practice and support to do right. Just like expert athletes, dancers, and musicians benefit from engaging in both mental and in actual rehearsal, we think students can benefit from perspective taking practice too. Regular practice, coupled with school staff and parents who are well informed as to how to help children in their charge work through real situations, should begin to shape healthy social-emotional habits; habits that will pop to mind and guide behavior in real, sticky situations.

To this end, there are three elements to our curriculum package.

1. Teacher’s fast facts. Perspective taking isn’t a unitary skill. Rather it reflects the ability to coordinate many aspects of psychological experience at once, for example, working memory capacity, self-awareness, emotion regulation, empathy, cognitive control. For each grade level, we created a one-page handout stating:

  • The shift teachers can expect students to go through during the year, regarding their growing perspective taking skill (using Robert Selman’s levels of perspective taking as our guide)
  • A description of the students’ expected expression of related skills noted above
  • Suggestions on how to nurture each  skill on it’s own

2. Advice for parents. The parent handouts are scaled down versions of the “teacher’s fast facts” with suggestions tailored to family, rather than classroom, life.

3. Perspective Taking Booster activities. For each classroom level, we created about 9 different in-class activities, complete with script-prompts, conversation starters, and an explanation of what the activity is supposed to achieve. The scenarios reflect a variety of realistic, close-to-home dilemmas where a lack of perspective taking provokes a disagreement, but where the two parties involved come to a resolution. The general template for each activity is that students build a script, act it out, then switch roles and act it out again.

I admire the principal who takes active steps towards creating a school culture of respect and kindness; one who looks for the silver lining in the murkiness of human interaction. It was a pleasure to create the curriculum package and a refreshing change of pace for me (i.e., this is the first time I’ve done something like this). Now let’s hope it works! This coming year, my thesis students will run an assessment to that end.

Questions for you: my readers.

In the meantime, I want to know what you – readers out there in the blog-o-sphere — think.

1. Have you had any experiences using materials like those we created? If so, I’d love to know more.

2. Are you interested in implementing a similar curriculum in your classes or schools? If so, let’s talk.

3. As a parent, what would your reaction be to receiving a “tips” handout from your child’s teacher? Would you follow it?

4. Do you agree that nurturing perspective taking can effect some positive change in school cultures?



  1. Hi Erica! I’d be interested in taking a look and perhaps implementing. We are doing The Leader in Me series and I know my fifth graders in SC would benefit.

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