Elizabeth Nilsen

Head shot of Dr. Liz Nilsen

BA (Victoria), MSc (Acadia), PhD (Calgary)

Contact information

Cognitive Development Lab website

Planning to admit a graduate student for Fall 2024

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 (CDL), my students and I examine how children, adolescents, and adults successfully navigate communicative interactions with others. Our work has relevance for identifying who may be at risk for communicative challenges and what may be the best way to support youth in their socio-communicative development. While most of our research projects fall under the general theme of communication, 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. To what extent do adolescents think about the mental states (thoughts/feelings) of online communicative partners? Over the last decade, the communicative context for youth has changed dramatically with an increase in online communication. We look at how adolescents communicate online, and what characteristics affect what they say/post and how they interpret others’ communication.
  3. What cognitive skills support youths’ communicative success? 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 different interactions?
  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 can we understand the communicative challenges associated with various conditions, such as ADHD? Though not always the case, 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.

I strive to create an inclusive research environment, where all students feel that they have agency and voice as they pursue their graduate training. Research projects are collaboratively developed, and we use research team meetings as an opportunity to share/discuss ideas with other researchers in the Cognitive Development Lab. Students are encouraged to present their work to academic and non-academic audiences. In addition to collaborating with researchers from Psychology, students in the lab may have opportunities to work with interdisciplinary collaborators. For instance, with collaborators in Computer Science, we are currently looking at how children teach social robots (and learn through this process).

Beyond research activities, I value the opportunity to support students in pursuing endeavours that build their professional skills more generally, tailored to their own specific career aspirations.

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

Selected publications

Please see lab website for list of publications.

Adolescent online communication:

Bowman-Smith, C., Sosa-Hernandez, L., & Nilsen, E. S. (2021). The other side of the screen: The impact of perspective-taking on adolescents’ online communication. Journal of Adolescence, 92, 46 - 56. Find paper here

Cognitive skills associated with communication:

Bacso, S., Nilsen, E. S., & Silva, J. (2021). How to turn that frown upside down: Children make use of a listener’s facial cues to detect and (attempt to) repair miscommunication. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 207, 105097. Find paper here

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 Development18, 441 – 464. Find paper here

Temperament and communication:

Nilsen, E. S., Silva, J., McAuley, T. & Floto, S. (2020). Executive functioning moderates the associations between shyness and pragmatic language. Social Development, 30(2), 554-574. Find paper here

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.  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. 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. Find paper here.

Children’s social behaviour:

Valcke, A. & Nilsen, E. S. (2022). The Influence of Context and Player Comments on Preschoolers’ Social and Partner-Directed Communicative Behavior. Journal of Cognition and Development, 1-27. Find paper here

Gevaux, N., Nilsen, E. S., Bobocel, R., & Gault, S. (2020). Children’s reactions to inequality: Associations with empathy and parental teaching. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 70, 101189. Find paper here

Communication general:

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

Current operating grants

SOCIAL SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL (SSHRC) Insight Grant Associations between mentalizing and adolescents’ on/off-line communication: Examining the role of temperament

SOCIAL SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL (SSHRC) Insight Development GrantAssociations between children’s characteristics and their perceptions of, strategies toward, and learning from teachable robots