Perspective Taking: The Social Skill You Want to be Teaching Kids
Updated: May 4
When teaching social skills to kids, you typically start with teaching self-awareness skills before moving to social awareness skills, which is what is involved in perspective-taking or theory of mind. Perspective-taking is the ability to relate to other people and see things from their perspective. It is such an important social skill to teach children because perspective-taking skills are part of most communication and interactions between people.
Perspective-taking is needed in order to have empathy for someone else. Perspective-taking is usually thought of as a cognitive component of empathy. There is also an emotional aspect of empathy, which is about one's emotional response to another's person's experience. Davis (1983) provides a broader definition of empathy as “the reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another.”
There is some debate within the communication field about what comes first, either the cognitive or emotional components of perspective-taking. Whatever the case, in order to achieve perspective-taking, the child has to understand what thoughts are, and that there are at least two different perspectives (their own and someone else's) involved. One of my favorite ways to work on perspective-taking and flexible thinking skills with kids is to show them a photograph and have them come up with at least two different thoughts the person may be having. You can do this with photographs you find, or you can use my Two-Thoughts Game Series.
I wanted to share with you some of the ways that I teach perspective-taking to the kids that I work with. I have found that this can take a lot of time and many repeated exposures for a child to generalize this skill, so it is not just a one-time lesson, but something that needs to be revisited which is why I created this Perspective Taking Growing Bundle so I can continue to create and add new resources. So far I've got multiple Two-Thoughts games, a digital escape room, a What Do You See? Game, and a Respectful Disagreements Sound Game.
When a child uses perspective-taking skills, they'll be able to understand what someone else is feeling and thinking, so they can communicate with them in a more productive manner. They can also understand someone else's needs more easily.
Social Scripts and In-The-Moment Teaching
I have found that perspective-taking is a topic that works well with in-the-moment coaching or teaching. For example, when you see a child struggling to see something from someone else's point of view, it would be a good time to intervene, do some modeling, offer scripts, assist, and scaffold the concept for them in the moment. Some simple social scripts that might be helpful include:
“I can see what you mean”
“I understand where you are coming from
“I hear what you are saying”
“I respectfully disagree because...”
Perspective Taking and Social Problem Solving
Empowering children how to solve problems on their own with peaceful conflict resolution skills is an important and much-needed life-skill. It's not realistic to think that children will never encounter problems or conflicts, but they do need to learn skills how to deal with conflicts appropriately.
Since I play a lot of games in my groups, I always start off the year with activities about being a good sport. Demonstrating good sportsmanship is an example of positive perspective-taking skills!
Perspective-taking is an important skill that can help in solving social problems. Bailey and Im-Bolter (2020) write that "flexibility in considering the self and other perspective is important for social problem solving" (Bailey, 2020).
Another problem-solving script I like to use with kids to help them problem solve conflicts are teaching them how to use I-Statements such as:
“I feel _____________________ when you ______________________. Can you please __________________________________?
A similar strategy is "It bugs me when ______, I wish you would please ______" from the book A Bug and a WIsh by Karen Scheuer.
Perspective Taking Glasses
I love using props in my work with kids because it's so fun! You can get some fun glasses, like these really big huge ones and have the kids put them on while they are pretending to take on the perspective of another person in a role play!
You can also have kids create their own perspective-taking glasses or even a monocle with pipe cleaners! To create pipe cleaner glasses follow these directions.
image by Mihoko Christina Hoshizumi
Whenever I start with perspective-taking, I love to use optical illusions, and the kids love them too! You can draw the letter M on a piece of paper and have two people stand facing each other looking down at it. One will likely say it is a W and the other will likely say it is an M. This is a good way to start the discussion about perspective-taking.
Perspective Taking and Bibliotherapy
I am a huge fan of bibliotherapy, and of course you can use books as a tool to help teach perspective-taking skills to kids! Depending on the developmental level and age of your kids, it might be helpful to start with discussing what a thought is. To tackle that subject, I love the book What is a Thought by Amy Kahofer and Jack Pransky.
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld is an amazing picture book inspired by this famous drawing from 1892.
Another book to consider is called Stand In My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson. You can also do some really great projects with this book! You can use different pictures of shoes and have the kids make up stories about the person's life who might have been wearing these shoes (a nice flexible thinking activity) to help the kids put themselves in someone else's perspective or frame of mind. You could even attach different role-play scenarios to the pictures.
I love The Weird Series of books (Weird! Dare! And Tough!) by Erin Frankel. They are a unique book series because they tell the story about bullying from 3 different perspectives (the bully, the victim, and the bystander.)
Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose is a fun story which will have your kids pondering what they would do if they were about to squish an ant and it started talking to them!
A Tale of Two Beasts by Fiona Robertson is a fun story which shows us that there are two sides to every story! Here is a video of Sarah Silverman reading it for Storytime Online:
You can also read books which tell a fairytale from a different character’s perspective. You can have fun with the kids and have them do this themselves too! Some examples of this include:
Honestly, Red Riding Hood was Rotten: The Story of Little Red Riding Hood as Told by the Wolf: by Trisha Speed Shaskan
The Maligned Wolf by Leif Fearn
The Respectfully Disagree Perspective Taking Sound Game
Using a sound games is another fun way to practice respectfully disagreeing and perspective taking. You can play the sounds and then the kids will discuss what they think they hear. Often times if a child struggles with perspective-taking they will say something like "No! You're wrong! This is what it is!" This is the perfect opportunity for that in-the-moment coaching. Of course, we also pre-teach how to respectfully disagree with one another, and how to be a good sport!
Place an object in a box, (or use Ned from the fabulous, versatile game What’s in Ned’s Head - I use this game all the time by putting thought bubble cards into Ned's Head and having the kids pull them out!), and have the kids put their hand in and feel around and guess what the object is, without looking at it. They’ll have to practice respectfully disagreeing with one another for this game. If you are teaching remotely or hybrid, an alternative to this would be to place an object up close to your camera lens and the other people try to guess what it is.
I'm always saving the names of interesting-looking programs that I might be able to bring to my school. My school has used the Choice to Be Nice program for years. In my search, I also found It's Okay to Be Different which is a free program with the intention “to comprehensively foster empathy, understanding, and kindness in all children. I also came upon Operation Respect which is about creating safe, comprehensive environments for children and youth. Their website has classroom lessons on expressing feelings, building community, resolving conflict creatively, and celebrating diversity.
Video Game Design and Perspective-Taking Skills
In Computers and Education (2020) Dishon and Kafai discuss using video game design as a way to help children with their perspective-taking skills. This is such an interesting idea because video games have an immersive and interactive nature, and so if one is designing a game then they would have to also think about the other people playing it.
I thought this was a really interesting study and could be a very cool way to work on perspective-taking with adolescents, since many teens are really into video games. Dishon and Kafai also go on to say that because games can be used publicly over shorter periods of time, the designers can get immediate feedback in a session, which is another avenue for perspective-taking. In addition, they discuss how working with game design “entails translating abstract insight concerning users experiences to concrete design decisions.” I think this could be a really cool intervention for teens! I would love to see a software company come up with some game design software that therapists could use, to help kids build their games in sessions!
Even More Games
Here are some of the games that I created that can be bought individually or at a discount in my perspective-taking growing bundle.
Or get all 6 of my perspective-taking resources (and future additions when they are added for free) at a discount in this bundle.
Bailey, K., & Im-Bolter, N. (2020). My way or your way? Perspective taking during social problem solving. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 66, 101087. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2019.101087
Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113-126. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
Dishon, G., & Kafai, Y. B. (2020). Making more of games: Cultivating perspective-taking through game design. Computers & Education, 148. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2020.103810