With my students, I focus on the continuity and differences in children’s developing understanding of mental states. Throughout the first year of life, children share emotions and attention with their caregivers and begin to use gestures communicatively (sample reading Legerstee, 2005).During the second and third year of life toddlers begin to engage in imaginary play such as pretense and use words to talk about mental states, and during the fourth and fifth year of life they understand that others hold beliefs that may be different from their own and also begin to reason about complex moral decisions.What is the difference between this early and later mental state awareness? Moreover, not all children develop equal competence in their awareness of mental states. How can we explain these individual differences in mind reading abilities?
With my students, I have provided evidence from laboratory studies and longitudinal play observations that,a) the beginnings of an awareness of people’s mental states arises through a sensitivity to emotions that are present in the earliest affective relationships infants engage in with a sympathetic adult (http://www.yorku.ca/yfile/archive/index.asp?Article=6324; Markova & Legerstee, 2006; Legerstee & Varghese, 2001), b) these earliest affective exchanges within the child-partner relationship are responsible for developmental changes from dyadic interactions where emotional experiences are shared, to triadic interactions where experiences about the world are shared (Legerstee & Barillas, 2003; Legerstee & Fisher, 2008; Legerstee, Markova & Fisher, 2007), and that c) maternal sensitive interactions and her discourse about mental states play an important role in the development of mental state talk (Legerstee, Fahy & Markova, submitted) and moral reasoning (Legerstee, Markova & Knezevic, submitted).Thus, the research focus is on the development of mental state awareness in infants and young children and on the socio-cultural variables, such as parental skills that may influence the ontogenetic pathway of these socio-cognitive abilities, and are responsible for individual differences in, and continuity between simple and complex mental states.