Teaching Perspective Taking
Updated: Aug 2
Perspective Taking is the cognitive component of what we generally refer to as empathy, and is specific to understanding another person’s thoughts, knowledge, intentions, and interests.
Empathy refers to understanding and even viscerally sharing others’ feelings, and responding in expected, pro-social ways. In reality, there is a great deal of interplay between thoughts and feelings, and the line between Perspective Taking and empathy is often indistinct. But for teaching purposes, it is helpful to share a clear and simplified understanding of these terms.
We can and do teach children what is expected of them when a classmate is hurt by an inconsiderate comment or trips over a backpack that was left out. But before students can authentically, independently show empathy for others, they need to be able to make the abstract cognitive leap beyond their own central, concrete point of view. So we are regarding Perspective Taking as the essential and teachable cognitive skill that provides a solid foundation for emotional empathy.
This a developmental process that can’t be rushed but can be fostered. A good SEL curriculum should proactively and specifically target the building blocks of Perspective Taking. SEL curriculum is not intended to replace all of our time-honored ways of teaching empathy, especially modeling it ourselves and reinforcing it when we observe it. But teaching Perspective Taking – whether in a planned lesson or in the moment – sounds different from trying to teach empathy:
“What was your plan with the blocks? And what do you think her plan was? So you had different ideas.”
“Why do you think this character said that? Did he have a hidden motive? What did he know that the rest of the kids didn’t know?”
“Do you think she knows that you didn’t do it on purpose?”
“What was the main reason the Spanish built missions in California?”
“Why did Mayella assume Atticus was mocking her instead of using customary courtesies?”
We use mentalizing words to refer to what we and others think, know, and guess. We explore attribution and motivation, seeking to understand the causes of behavior. While it sometimes seems like guesswork, it is more like completing a puzzle. When most of the pieces are in place, we can learn to make fairly accurate predictions about which of the remaining few pieces will be likely to fit. We can help students learn to take others’ perspectives by drawing their attention to the parts of the equation that are known and then helping them make the logical leap to figure out the unknown. Much like solving for x.
“When you tripped and stepped on my toe yesterday, you didn’t mean to hurt me, right? OK, so sometimes accidents happen. And has Barney ever crashed into you and hurt you before? No? And I thought I saw you two laughing together right before this happened, so do you think he crashed into you because he was mad at you? No. So do you think he crashed into you by accident or on purpose?”
This is very different from “How do you think you made him/her feel?” It’s a classic question, meant to teach empathy, but for most students, it tends to provoke shame. The students who repeatedly get asked this question tend to become defensive, muttering that they don't know, or don’t care! This is a reliable signal that they need us to escort them out of the overheated realm of emotions and blame, and more neutrally and logically help them work out the missing puzzle pieces. Only then can we expect them to act on that information in socially expected ways.
Final note: We use language about “expected vs. unexpected” behaviors to remind students that 1) other people have thoughts about us, 2) those thoughts often take the shape of rules, guidelines, community norms, hidden social rules, and other expectations, and 3) these expectations are relevant to how we manage our own behavior. When we use “expected” as a synonym for inappropriate – “That is so unexpected!” – we negate much of its utility for teaching perspective taking. Students come to associate it with “doing something wrong” instead of seeing it as an opening to consider others’ perspectives in relation to their own behavior.
Perspective taking is not about conforming to everyone’s expectations of us or fretting about what others think. But it is an important skill to be able to put clues together to make educated guesses about others’ perspectives, experiences, and intentions. It is vital to navigating the social world, and it is teachable.