When I was a child, I had a really hard time choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. It wasn’t that I couldn’t decide which one I liked more because I knew that I loved chocolate the best. The problem was that I didn’t want to hurt vanilla’s feelings by choosing chocolate. No joke, I was ridiculously sensitive to the perspective of others as a child. In fact, I was so sensitive to it that I would put the perspective of an inanimate object above my own desires. You can imagine my relief when I discovered swirl ice cream!
Now I would consider my perspective-taking abilities as a child as WAY too over the top. But what about those people who are not able to take another person’s perspective at all? They have the opposite problem of little Carrie.
What is Perspective-Taking?
Perspective-taking refers to a person’s ability to consider a situation from a different point of view. It requires you to put yourself in the other person’s position and imagine what you would feel, think, or do if you were in that situation.
When you are able to imagine a situation from someone else’s perspective, you can gain a better understanding of someone else’s motives or change your own behavior so you don’t offend someone.
What Happens if you have Perspective-Taking Problems?
Do you have any acquaintances that you would describe as “inconsiderate”? How about “self-centered”?
I’m willing to bet that you think of those people like that because they are having trouble with perspective-taking.
As adults, we must consider other people’s perspectives before we act or speak. When we don’t consider how our actions will make others feel, we end up seeming rude, inconsiderate, and self-centered.
As someone who is often too sensitive to the needs of others, I have very little tolerance for those who don’t seem able to see things from any point of view aside from their own. They end up doing only what is in their own best interest and disregard what is best for the group or anyone else they are with.
When our children have trouble with perspective-taking, they may have difficulty making friends or maintaining those friendships once they are made.
Can you Teach Perspective-Taking to a Child?
Fortunately, it is very possible to teach a child to take the perspective of others. I am going to offer some suggested activities that can be done in speech therapy or at home to improve a child’s ability to take another’s perspective. Here are the skills and activities broken down by age:
Preschoolers and Perspective-Taking
Have you ever seen 2 babies in a room and when one starts crying, the other starts crying too? That’s because babies don’t know that someone else’s discomfort is not their own. They don’t have the ability to take the perspective of someone else. We call this theory of mind (meaning that the child understands that other people have other perspectives than their own). Babies don’t have theory of mind yet.
Around 2-3 years of age, children start to gain an understanding that each person is experiencing different things. During the preschool years, we should see a child start to show concern for others who are upset. They may show concern for someone who is crying or try to do something to help that person.
However, at this stage, children still often confuse their own perspective with others. A preschooler may think that since she likes ice cream, everyone likes ice cream. This may lead to actions like giving someone who is crying a favorite toy because the child knows that would cheer him up if he had it himself.
Here are some ideas of what you can do with preschoolers who are not yet showing signs of understanding that other people have different perspectives and feelings than we do:
- Point out the emotions of others. Show the child when another child is crying and talk about how he feels and why he feels that way. This can be especially important if the child you’re working with accidently caused the other child to be upset in the first place.
- Read books and talk about how the characters may be feeling in the book. Identify the emotions and then talk about why the character feels that way or how you know (he is smiling, he found his toy, etc.)
- Talk about your own emotions. Label your own emotions to the child throughout the day. Talk about why you feel that way. If you have negative emotions, talk about what would make you feel better.
- Help the child problem-solve situations to make someone feel better. If another child is upset, ask the child what he could do to help that friend. Give him some ideas like going to get an ice pack, helping the other child up off the group, or finding something fun for the child to do.
Perspective-Taking in Grades K-2
During these years, the child’s perspective-taking skills should continue to grow. The child should develop the ability to guess what people are thinking or feeling based on their behaviors and understand their motivation for certain behaviors.
Keep in mind that this is still happening at a very simplistic level. For example, if the child you’re working with watches another child hit his teacher, the K-2nd grader should be able to guess that the child hit his teacher because he was mad. He probably wouldn’t be able to tell you though that the other child was frustrated because the task that the teacher asked him to do was too difficult.
- When the child you’re working with does something that causes strong emotions in another person (happy or sad), point out the other child’s reaction. Ask the child why he thinks he had that reaction. Talk about the other child’s emotions and why he is feeling that way. Then, talk about how that child’s actions reflected that emotion.
- Ask the child how he would feel if he were in the other person’s situation. For example, if he takes a toy away from another child, ask him “How would you feel if Johnny took your favorite toy away from you?”. Help the child identify the emotion he would feel and then explain that the other child feels the same way.
- While reading books, help the child make guesses for why the characters did certain actions. Talk about the motivation behind behaviors by linking the behavior or action to an emotion. Then, talk about why the character would have felt that emotion.
Perspective-Taking in Grades 3-5
During these grades, children begin to develop the understanding that everyone sees situations from a different perspective and that people may therefore misinterpret what’s going on. For example, the child will understand if you explain to him that when he walked up to his friend and hit him on the back, he meant it as a greeting but his friend interpreted it as anger.
Children in these grades also begin to understand that a person may be hiding his/her true feelings. For example, they would begin to understand that if a child said “I’m okay” but still had tears in her eyes, she may not really be ok but she just wants others to think she is.
- When reading a story with multiple characters, help the child map out how each character interpreted an event or situation. Write down each character’s name and then write what each character was thinking or feeling during the situation. Help the child discover differences between the different characters’ perspectives by pointing out when one character had different information than the others (example: Johnny didn’t know everyone was throwing him a surprise party so he felt surprised when everyone jumped out but the people who jumped up were not surprised. They knew it was a party).
- If the child you are working with becomes surprised by someone’s reaction to something he did, help him describe how the other person may have felt during the situation and help the child put himself in that other person’s situation. Help the child understand what the other person’s reaction was based on.
- Help the child resolve conflicts by examining the perspective of each participant (in the conflict) and then coming up with a solution that will offer a compromise for all perspectives. This may involve sharing, taking turns, using words to explain the situation more thoroughly, etc.
- Talk to the child about reading body language and using perspective-taking to determine if someone is hiding their true feelings. Talk about sarcasm and figurative language as ways the people may say one thing but mean something else.
Perspective-Taking in Grades 6-8
At this point, children continue to fine-tune their ability to take the perspective of others and understand someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and motives. They continue to develop the skills we’ve mentioned previously but in more complex ways.
These children are also beginning to understand that people often have multiple motives for their behavior and sometimes those motives are conflicting. For example, the child may understand that a teenager may be tempted to smoke because it will make him look cooler (peer pressure) but that he may be reluctant to do so because it is unhealthy and gross.
- When reading a story with the child, ask the child to think about the motives that a character has for certain actions. Explore all of the motives that the character has and talk about if any of the motives conflict with each other (Harry Potter is great for this. He often has conflicting motives and must decide what to do on his own. Plus, it’s written from his point of view so you often get to hear his inner dialogue and debate).
- Ask the child about his own motives for certain behaviors. Explore all motives, including conflicting motives. Talk with the child about how you make a decision when you have conflicting motives (such as using a pro/con list).
- If the child expresses confusion or concern over a decision that someone else has made, help him write down the different motives that the person had that led to him making that decision. Ask the child if he would have made the same decision in that situation or if he would have chosen something else. Explain to the child that we all have the right to make our choices based on our own opinions, feelings, and experiences and sometimes we disagree on the best plan of action but that’s ok.
Perspective-Taking in Grades 9-12 (High School)
At this point, these young adults begin to understand that a person’s culture and environment impact their personality, behavior, and perspectives. They begin to see how we are all a product of our environment and that past events and present circumstances all affect how we see the world. For example, young adults may begin to see that a person who has always been discriminated against is more likely to assume he’s being discriminated against than someone who has never known discrimination.
These young adults are also beginning to understand that people may not always be fully aware of why they act the way they do. They may be acting a certain way because they were brought up that way or they are repressing some feelings that they don’t want to deal with.
- Talk with the student about cultural impacts on behavior. Discuss how different cultures may impact a person’s behavior. Talk openly about differences among cultural groups but avoid making over-generalized statements that may be taken as racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory.
- Read stories about people from other countries. Talk about how their daily lives are different than the student’s and discuss how their environment has impacted the way they live day-to-day.
- Read stories about people who have very different life experiences than the student. Read about children with poor upbringings or who faced adversity early in life. Talk about how those experiences changed that person (for the better or worse) and how that person’s perspective is different as a result.
- Talk about how historical events may have changed a certain cultural group’s behaviors, thoughts, or motivations. For example, talk about how getting the right to vote changed women’s behaviors and attitudes or how slavery of African-Americans in America affected their behaviors and attitudes.
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