Elizabeth Nilsen

Professor; Interim Assistant Vice President, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs (GSPA)

Head shot of Dr. Liz NilsenBA (Victoria), MSc (Acadia), PhD (Calgary)

Contact information

Cognitive Development Lab website

Research interests

Being able to interact and communicate effectively with others is an essential component of development. In most (if not all) social contexts, this ability depends on an individual’s ability to recognize and appreciate their conversational partner’s perspective and modify their behaviours accordingly. While such sensitivity and flexibility may come easily for some people, for others it may create a challenge, resulting in less skills socio-communicative behaviour. Indeed, disrupted socio-communicative behaviour can be the most debilitating aspect of many pediatric mental health conditions.

In my lab, my students and I examine the development of children’s communicative skills, as well as, how both children and adults successfully navigate interactions with others. While most research projects fall under this general theme, there are various streams:

  1. How well do children, adolescents, and adults’ use the perspective of their conversational partner to guide behaviour? Historically, children have been seen as ‘egocentric’ or insensitive to other’s mental states. However, remarkable sensitivity has been demonstrated in many different contexts. We look at when this sensitivity to others’ perspective is (or is not) demonstrated.
  2. What cognitive skills support the development of communicative abilities? Given that at a young age children can appreciate the perspective of a partner? What other skills support their ability to use this information during interactions?
  3. How can we understand the communicative challenges associated with various conditions, such as ADHD? Many individuals with ADHD (children and adults) struggle in the interpersonal domain. In this line of work, we seek to determine why this may be the case.
  4. How does an individual’s temperament relate to their communicative abilities? Children (and adults) with temperaments that are more shy or anxious tend to withdraw from (new) social situations. We look at how perceptions of social partners and/or of communicative utterances may differ according to temperamental style.
  5. What cognitive skills are associated with a child’s ability to navigate diverse social situations (e.g., collaborating, sharing, recognizing inequity)? Uncovering the nature and development of such prosocial behaviour is important given its strong relations to children’s later social and academic success.
  6. How do children interact with social robots in a learning context? Reflecting a new project with Computer Science collaborators, we are interested in studying how various robot characteristics influence the way in which children ‘teach’ them new concepts (and potentially learn new content in the process).

Selected publications

Please see lab website for complete list of publications.

Communication general:

Nilsen, E. S., & Graham, S. A. (2012). The development of preschoolers’ appreciation of communicative ambiguity. Child Development, 83, 1400 – 1415.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01762. Find paper here.

Nilsen, E. S., & Fecica, A. (2011). A model of communicative perspective-taking for typical and atypical populations of children. Developmental Review, 31, 55 – 78. DOI: 10.1016/j.dr.2011.07.001. Find paper here.

Cognitive skills associated with communication:

Bacso, S. & Nilsen, E. S. (2017). What’s that you’re saying? Children with better executive functioning are more able to successfully produce and repair referential statements. Journal of Cognition and Development, 18, 441 – 464. DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2017.1336438. Find paper here.

Nilsen, E. S., & Graham, S. (2009). The relations between children’s communicative perspective-taking and executive functioning. Cognitive Psychology, 58, 220-249DOI: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2008.07.002. Find paper here.

ADHD and communication:

Nilsen, E. S., & Bacso, S. (2017). The cognitive and behavioural predictors of adolescents’ communicative perspective-taking and social competence. Adolescence, 56, 52-63. DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.01.004. Find paper here.

Nilsen, E. S., & Lizdek, I. & Ethier, N. (2015). Mother-child interpersonal dynamics: The influences of maternal and child ADHD symptoms. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 6, 313-329. DOI: 10.5127/jep.047015. Find paper here.

Temperament and communication:

Mewhort-Buist, T. A., & Nilsen, E. S., (2019). Shy children’s understanding of irony: Better comprehension does not always mean better outcomes. Infant and Child Development, e2131. DOI: 10.1002/icd.2131. Find paper here.

Nilsen, E. S., & Duong, D. (2013). Depressive symptoms and perspective-taking within a communicative context. Cognition & Emotion, 27, 335 - 344. DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2012.708648. Find paper here.

Children’s social behaviour:

Nilsen, E. S., & Valcke, A., (2018). Children’s sharing with collaborators versus competitors: Relations with executive functioning and mentalizing ability. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 58, 38 - 48. DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2018.08.001. Find paper here.

Huyder, V., Nilsen, E., & Bacso, S. (2017). The relationship between children’s executive functioning, theory of mind, and verbal skills with their own and others’ behaviour in a cooperative context: Changes in relations from early to middle school-age. Infant and Child Development, 26. DOI: 10.1002/icd.2027. Find paper here.

Clinical interests

I am actively involved in the clinical supervision of graduate students in our UW Centre for Mental Health Research and Treatment (CMHRT). At the CMHRT I supervise adult and child assessments and therapeutic interventions. My clinical work is guided by empirically supported methods, with my primary theoretical orientation as cognitive behavioural

Current operating grants

Children's perspective-taking during communication and social interactions: Mechanisms and outcomes

Teachable agents for enhancing student curiosity and learning (Co-Investigator)

University of Waterloo

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