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Ask a Researcher

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We are excited to announce that the Cognitive Development Lab is adding a new way for families to stay involved and get connected with us. Our "ask a researcher" project allows parents to submit general questions about children's communication. A member of our lab will review current research and provide an answer to your question. 

You can submit questions to or put them in our question box during your next visit. 


Question: When can I expect my child to start cooperating with others? 

Researcher Vanessa's Answer: By the second year of life, children begin to show pro-social or helping behaviours (e.g., sharing toys, cooperating with another person to perform a goal). Research has shown that, similar to adults, preschool children’s cooperative behaviour is guided by three principles. Specifically, preschool children preferentially share resources with those who are of close relation (i.e., relatives, close friends), those who have helped one in the past (i.e., reciprocity), and those who have shown great helping or generosity to others (i.e., to oneself or another person).

Olson, K.R. & Spelke, E.S. (2008). Foundations of cooperation in young children. Cognition, 108, 222-231.

Question: I like to praise my children to let them know that they’ve done a good job. Does it matter how I praise them?

Research Anisha's Answer: After a job well done, strive to praise children for the effort that they made, rather than attributing their success to who they are. For example, after they achieve a high score on a Math test, praise them with “Wow! I appreciate how you studied hard for that test”, or, “It’s great how you tried all the questions- even the ones that were hard”, rather than, “you’re such a good student”, or, “you’re so smart.” Research shows that attributing success to children’s ability paradoxically leads them to avoid challenges and persist less. Consider this example: if a child believes that her success is due to her intelligence, she might interpret difficulty as a sign that she might not be as smart as she was told. In order to preserve her idea of her intelligence, she might avoid situations which have a risk of failure. In contrast, a child who believes that her success is due to her hard effort would likely persist and work even harder when she comes across challenges. 

Mueller, C., & Dweck, C. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.

Question: As a volunteer in my son’s preschool class, I have noticed that some of his classmates have more trouble sharing toys than others? Why is this, and what can I do to encourage them to give others a turn with their toys? 

Answer: In order to share with a classmate or friend, a child may have to give up a toy that he or she finds valuable or interesting. This can be challenging for a child at any age! One aspect of socio-cognitive development that is related to children’s sharing behaviour is Theory of Mind (ToM).  ToM, which is an awareness of other people’s mental states (including their desires, goals, and intentions), has been linked to more spontaneous and more generous sharing in children. Those children with superior ToM are better able to understand that another child might also be interested in the toy, and that he or she might become upset without a turn. Children show much improvement in ToM ability between the ages of 3 and 5, which may explain why some of the children in your son’s class are less inclined to share.  

Research has shown that young children who have not yet developed ToM require more overt sharing cues than older children. To promote sharing in the classroom, you could direct the child’s attention to the desires of his or her playmate by clearly stating them and explicitly asking the child to share the toy. 

Wu, Z., & Su, Y. (2014). How do preschoolers’ sharing behaviors relate to their theory of mind understanding? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 120, 73-86. 

When my toddler is talking with someone on the phone, why does she point to objects even though the person she is speaking with clearly cannot see her?

This behaviour is a perfect example of “egocentric” communication, where a child has difficulty accounting for their conversational partner’s perspective during a conversation. It is thought that young children communicate in an egocentric fashion either because they have difficulty understanding that the perspective of another person can be different than their own – or because they are unable to use perspective information in a meaningful way (i.e., there are too many demands for their cognitive systems so they default to more egocentric language). In this specific case, your daughter is able to see her hand pointing and the object she is pointing at, but she may not realize that the person she is speaking with on the phone cannot also see these things. The ability to understand that other people can have different perspectives than one’s own is called “theory of mind”. While infants show early evidence of some sensitivity to other’s perspectives (e.g., Liszkowski et al., 2007), more concrete theory of mind skills tend to develop around the age of 3-5 (Flavell, 1999). However, even though children at this age may realize others’ perspectives differ from their own, their ability to incorporate this information into their speech shows continued development through the school-age years (e.g., Lloyd, Mann, & Peers, 1998).

Flavell, J. H. (1999). Cognitive development: Children's knowledge about the mind. Annual review of psychology, 50(1), 21-45.

Lloyd, P., Mann, S., & Peers, I. (1998). The growth of speaker and listener skills from five to eleven years. First Language, 18(52), 081-103.

Liszkowski, U., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2007). Pointing out new news, old news, and absent referents at 12 months of age. Developmental Science, 10, F1–F7.

I am interested in knowing about the effects of migration on the cognitive developmental processesof my growing daughters. 

Thank you for the interesting question. While there are many factors that contribute to the social, emotional, and cognitive development of children settling into a new environment, we’ll provide some information about the specific cognitive skill our lab focuses on, namely, communication. Learning to be a successful communicator, wherein children start to consider the perspective of their conversational partners, shows a trajectory that spans from infancy (e.g., Southgate, Chevallier, & Csibra, 2010) to adolescence (e.g., Dumontheil, Apperly & Blakemore, 2010). You had asked about migration. While, the research on the effect of migration on communication is less clear, there is work looking at the impact of bilingualism. Current work shows that children who are exposed to two languages show more effective communication skills. Specifically, in a group of 4-6 year-olds, those children who were exposed to more than one language showed a better ability to consider a speaker’s perspective than those who were monolingual (Fan, Liberman, Keysar, & Kinzler, 2015). Thus, if your children are now being exposed to a second language, this may facilitate their general socio-communicative skills.

Dumontheil, I., Apperly, I. A., & Blakemore, S. J. (2010). Online usage of theory of mind continues to develop in late adolescence. Developmental Science, 13(2), 331–338.

Fan, S. P., Liberman, Z., Keysar, B., & Kinzler, K. D. (2015). The exposure advantage: Early exposure to a multilingual environment promotes effective communication. Psychological Science, 26, 1090 – 1097.

Southgate, V., Chevallier, C., & Csibra, G. (2010). Seventeen-month- olds appeal to false beliefs to interpret others’ referential communication. Developmental Science, 13, 907–912.

Do some children have more difficulty with communicating than others?

There are some important individual differences that predict children’s ability to communicate effectively with others. Two areas that our lab has focused on are children’s executive functioning skills, which refers to a set of cognitive skills that allow for individuals to engage in goal-directed behaviour (think of these skills as the CEO of the brain), and children’s ADHD traits (i.e., the degree to which they show inattention and hyperactive/impulsive behaviours). With respect to executive functioning, a number of studies in the lab have shown that children who are less able to inhibit responses generally tend to be more ‘egocentric’ in their communication style. That is, they have more difficulty with appreciating the perspective of a conversational partner (e.g., Nilsen & Graham, 2009). Another area of executive functioning is working memory, the ability to hold in mind information. We find that children who are less able to hold in mind information show more difficulty with producing statements that are unambiguous (e.g., Nilsen, Varghese, Xu, & Fecica, 2015). In terms of children’s behaviour, those who display more ADHD traits tend to have more difficulty with producing statements that are at the appropriate level of detail. That is, they tend to not include as much necessary information and provide more irrelevant information (e.g., Nilsen et al., 2015). This difficulty also extends to their ability to understand statements from others (e.g., Nilsen, Mangal, & MacDonald, 2013).

Nilsen, E. S., & Graham, S. (2009). The relations between children’s communicative perspective-taking and executive functioning. Cognitive Psychology, 58, 220-249.

Nilsen, E. S., Mangal, L., & MacDonald, K. (2013). Referential communication in children with ADHD: challenges in the role of a listener. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56(2), 590-603.

Nilsen, E. S., Varghese, A., Xu, Z., & Fecica, A. (2015). Children with stronger executive functioning and fewer ADHD traits produce more effective referential statements. Cognitive Development, 36, 68-82.

Current studies

We are currently running studies for children aged, 7-8 years. View our current studies page for more information.

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