Elizabeth Nilsen

Associate Professor; Associate Chair Graduate Affairs

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

Contact information

Cognitive Development Lab website

Research interests

My research program generally focuses on cognitive development in the preschool and school years, with a specific focus on children’s communication skills. Successful communication entails recognition of the social and situational context as well as appreciation for one’s conversational partner’s perspective (e.g., his/her knowledge state). My research investigates children’s sensitivity to another’s perspective and the degree to which they are able to use this information to guide their communicative behaviours (such as producing clear statements, correctly interpreting statements from others, working in a cooperative manner, and understanding figurative language). Current research focuses on the developmental course of various communicative behaviours, underlying cognitive skills necessary for children to successfully navigate their social world, as well as individual differences and contextual factors that influence communicative behaviour.
The research in my lab investigates the skills of typically-developing children and children who show atypical development (e.g., children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), children with socially withdrawing behaviour, etc.). Several recent projects also examine the communicative patterns of adults who experience symptoms of ADHD.

Selected publications

Papers on communication in atypical populations

Nilsen, E. S., Mangal, L., & MacDonald, K. (2013). Referential communication in children with ADHD: The role of a listener. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56, 590 - 603. DOI: 10.1044/1092-4388(2012/12-0013)

Nilsen, E. S., Mewhort-Buist, T., Gillis, R., & Fugelsang, J. (2013). Communicative perspective-taking performance of adults with ADHD symptoms. Journal of Attention Disorders, 17, 589 - 597. DOI: 10.1177/1087054711428947.

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

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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2011.07.001

Papers examining the cognitive skills that facilitate children’s successful interactions with others

Gillis, R., & Nilsen, E. S., (accepted). The role of cognitive flexibility in children’s ability to detect communicative ambiguity. First Language. DOI: 10.1037/a0033916

Huyder, V., & Nilsen, E. S., (2012). A dyadic data analysis of executive functioning and children’s socially competent behaviours. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 33, 197 - 208. DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2012.05.002

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

Papers on children’s ability to communicate effectively with others

Varghese, A., & Nilsen, E. S., (2013). Incentives improve the clarity of school-age children’s referential statements. Cognitive Development, 28, 364 - 373. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2013.07.001

Nilsen, E. S., & Mangal, L., (2012). Which is important for preschoolers’ production and repair of statements: What the listener knows or what the listener says? Journal of Child Language, 39, 1121-1134. DOI: 10.1017/S0305000911000432.

Papers on children’s sensitivity to ambiguous language

Gillis, R., & Nilsen, E. S., (2013). Children’s use of information quality to establish speaker preferences. Developmental Psychology. 49, 480 – 490. DOI: 10.1037/a0029479

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

Nilsen, E. S., Graham, S., Smith, S., & Chambers, C. (2008). Preschoolers’ sensitivity to referential ambiguity: Evidence for a dissociation between implicit understanding and explicit behavior. Developmental Science, 11:4, 556-562.

Papers on children’s ability to understand sarcasm

Mewhort-Buist, T. A., & Nilsen, E. S., (2013). What are you really saying? Associations between shyness and verbal irony comprehension. Infant and Child Development, 22, 180 - 197. DOI: 10.1002/icd.1769

Glenwright, M., Parackel, J., Cheung, K., & Nilsen, E. S., (2013). Intonation influences how children and adults interpret sarcasm. Journal of Child Language. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0305000912000773

Nilsen, E. S., Glenwright, M., & Huyder, V. (2011). Children and adults understand that verbal irony interpretation depends on listener knowledge. Journal of Cognition and Development, 12, 374 – 409. DOI:10.1080/15248372.2010.544693

Papers on children’s use of gaze/attention as a social cue

Neath, K., Nilsen, E. S., Gittovitch, K., Itier, R.J. (2013). Attention orienting by gaze and facial expressions across development. Emotion, 13, 397 - 408. DOI: 10.1037/a0030463

Graham, S. A., Nilsen, E. S., Friesen, C. K., & Johnson, J. (2011). Examining the role of attention and intention in two-year-olds’ acquisition of novel words. Enfance, 3, 311 - 328. DOI: 10.4074/S0013754511003041

Graham, S., Nilsen, E. S., Collins, S., & Olineck, K. (2010). The role of gaze direction and mutual exclusivity in guiding 24-month-olds’ word learning. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28, 449-465.

Nilsen, E. S., Graham, S., & Pettigrew, T. (2009). Preschoolers’ word mappings: The interplay between labelling context and quality of speaker attention. Journal of Child Language, 36, 673-684. DOI:10.1017/S0305000908009021

Clinical interests

I am actively involved in the clinical supervision of graduate students in our uWaterloo Centre for Mental Health Research (CMHR). At the CMHR I supervise adult and child assessments, as part of our Cognitive Assessment Team, and therapeutic interventions with children. My clinical work is guided by empirically supported methods, with my primary theoretical orientation as cognitive behavioural. I work at a private practice one day a week where I see adult and child clients.

Current operating grants

Ontario Mental Health Foundation New Investigator Fellowship

  1. Communicative Perspective-taking and Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

  1. Developing Communicative Competence: Preschoolers’ Sensitivity to their Communicative Partner’s perspective
  2. Children's perspective-taking during communication and social interactions: Mechanisms and outcomes
University of Waterloo

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