Understanding multiple perspectives: the challenge of developing Theory of Mind for deaf children and those who teach them

Student thesis: Phd


It is understood and accepted that deafness impacts on language acquisition for deaf children. What is less understood is the impact that deafness may have on other aspects of communication including subtle but fundamental changes to individuals’ perceptions of themselves and those around them. This thesis reports evidence from six peer-reviewed papers focussed on the challenges and opportunities in understanding the perspectives of others for deaf children and those who teach them. The papers centred on deaf children’s use the concept of Theory of Mind (ToM) as a framework to explore the challenges and the potential there may be to develop their abilities to see other perspectives. ToM describes an individual’s ability to recognise that “people have thoughts, including beliefs about a real world and they act, not on the basis of the way things really are, but on the basis of their beliefs� (Lundy, 2002, p.42). This interpretation of minds is inextricably linked to perspective-taking and now also includes the interpretation of emotional states (Westby & Robinson, 2014). Within this thesis, deaf children’s ToM is contextualised by a consideration of the integral role that practitioners may play, the opportunities that exist in everyday communicative endeavours and the incremental development of skills and understanding. This is a departure from historic discourse on deaf children’s ToM skills which has placed deaf children at a disadvantage by employing an approach where outcomes are viewed as binary (i.e. the child can / cannot pass a test of ToM). The traditional, monolithic approach emphasises the importance of false belief tasks (explained in section 1.2). Whilst understanding false belief is considered to be a component of ToM, placing this centrally has failed to consider the developmental trajectory for deaf children and the extraneous influences on deaf children’s ToM. This thesis presents evidence which is rooted in everyday practice and focuses on learners in tertiary education through to primary aged learners. The papers use frameworks which consider the understanding of ToM development beyond false-belief tasks. Four of the papers focus on opportunities to support development through everyday literacy activities (e.g. through booksharing and deaf children’s written narratives). Those papers evidence the opportunities which are implicit in literacy activities. Two of those papers indicate that practitioners working with deaf children require more understanding of the developmental nature of ToM in order to appropriately support learners to develop skills. The thesis highlights the opportunities that specialist practitioners have in identifying opportunities for ToM activities through literacy activities and other learning situations. In closing the circle, one paper reports on the opportunities that training Teachers of the Deaf may have to refine their own skills by viewing the perspective of those who observe their teaching. The overall findings suggest a need for those working with deaf children to have expert knowledge of ToM development and the strategies which may support its enhancement in deaf children. This knowledge needs to be informed by behavioural frameworks which address the broad spectrum of development in this area. It is suggested that research on ToM and deafness needs to provide a clearer focus on the role of those around the child. In enabling this shift, research on intervention which can be achieved through everyday activities and communicative interactions is suggested to be key.
Date of Award31 Dec 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorWendy Mccracken (Supervisor)


  • Theory of Mind
  • deafness
  • social communication

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