There is a big shift in three- to four-years-olds in their ability to understand beliefs that are different from their own. As we have seen in previous posts, during their third year, children develop a strong sense of themselves. The word “I” is central in their vocabulary. But they still believe that everyone thinks what they do. However, by their fourth year, children want a different kind of recognition. They want their ability to think from others’ points of view  to be respected. If it’s not, they may feel hurt,  slighted and babied.




Theory of mind (“ToM”) is the ability of the child to understand that people have beliefs, intentions, wishes, and feelings referred to as mental states. By age four, children understand that others have mental states different from their own. This is a milestone in their development.

Some children with special needs such as those on the autistic spectrum and others with emotional disorders often have deficits in this ability when they are young, but many can attain this milestone as they grow older with special education and emotional counseling. It is important for parents and special education teachers to help children reach this goal, so they can relate well to others and feel liked.


Watch this video about the FALSE BELIEF TEST that illustrates the differences in the Theory of Mind in action between three and four-year-olds.


After viewing this video, it should be clear how far apart three- and four-year-olds are in their understandings of how things may not be as they appear. The older children understand deception. They are not easily fooled.





Social Referencing is when children study the facial expressions of others to see how they should think, feel and behave. This begins as early as 7 months. By 18 months, the child studies others’ expressions but then also has their own ideas of how to think, feel, and behave. By preschool, three- and four-year-olds have developed their own expectations of themselves and the ability to follow rules. They compare their own judgment about how to behave with the expression on the teacher’s or parent’s facial expression to see if they are acting correctly or not.


Preschoolers impulsively do what they want to do instead of following the rules, such as take another child’s toy away from them without asking; they may attempt to deceive the teacher or parent by blaming the other child for the misdeed. They are conscious of right and wrong and don’t want to be viewed as “bad.” Even if they are justly accused of misbehavior, they may not feel heard because they want to be seen as “good.”

They may even insist, “He did it. You aren’t listening to me. You don’t get it.”





How do you help the child know the difference between right and wrong and still feel heard?  How do you let your child know he misbehaved but you still understand he wants to be viewed as a good child?

One option is for the teacher or parent to recognize the child’s conflict: “You wished to do the right thing but you wanted the toy more, so you took it away from Todd.”

Then tell the child how to correct the misbehavior: “You can say, ‘I’m sorry’ to Todd and ask him if you can have a turn.”

In this way the teacher or parent solves the moral conflict—being good, not bad—and listens to the child’s need at the same time. Some three- and most four-year-olds can accept that kind of response and grow from it.

A second option is to again recognize the child’s conflict: “You wished to do the right thing, but you didn’t make a good choice, so you took the toy away from Todd.”

Then add how to correct the misbehavior: “Now make a good choice and say you’re sorry and ask if you can have a turn.”

In grade school moral reasoning develops more fully.

Parental-intel-cvr-2Learn more about solving problems with preschoolers using Parental Intelligence.


  1. Jennifer @ Hybrid Rasta Mama on May 24, 2014 at 12:55 am

    Wonderful post! I remember that there was a HUGE shift from 3 to 4. I actually preferred 4 over three although it was a lot of work. I love your points related to facial expressions. I often forget just how much my daughter absorbs from what is written on my face. This is a really insightful look at the four year old mind. I think many parents forget just how young four year olds still are and how much learning and growing they have to do!

    • Laurie Hollman on May 24, 2014 at 1:42 pm

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate what you said about how we forget how young four-year-olds are especially how their minds are growing. I’m so glad you are interested in Theory of Minds. I plan on writing more about it. I find it fascinating.

  2. Dr. Lynn Seskin on May 26, 2014 at 11:39 pm

    Developing theory of mind ties in with your discussion of moral reasoning and feeling heard. Children tend to develop awareness of others’ feelings, wants, and needs more fully when their caregivers talk about mental states and provide a rationale for changing the child’s misbehavior. Interactions with siblings, reading stories to the child, and pretend play may also help to enhance a child’s social cognition.

    • Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. on May 28, 2014 at 1:06 pm

      These ideas for helping kids learn about others’ points of view are great for parents to know. When parents engage in pretend play they can ask their child what each character is thinking and feeling promoting considering what’s in others’ minds.
      Thanks for the comment.

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