Developing a sense of self [Key Stages 2-4]

Opening Questions

How do we start being able to understand what other people are thinking?


Play the following video for the audience, explaining that in order to understand that other people might be thinking something different from you, you first have to recognise who ‘you’ are, as someone separate from them. Children develop the ability to recognise their own reflection in a mirror at about 18-months of age. We know this from doing the following test – a red dot is put on the child’s face without them noticing and then they are placed in front of a mirror. When they see the dot, if they reach over to their reflection and try to rub it off it suggests that they do not yet recognise the reflection as them-self. However, if they reach to their own face to rub the dot off is suggests that they have the first stages of being self-aware.

Human children develop a sense of their selves over infancy with an increasing awareness that they are a member of a group that goes beyond just their family members. From around the same age as they pass the mirror test, children start to become more social by helping others and empathizing. At around 18-months of age they will feel sad when they watch someone else being unhappy.

Discussion Points


Q: Do any other animals pass the mirror test of self-awareness?

A: This test has been done with a wide variety of animals. Other animals that have passed the test include most great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas), rhesus macaques, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants and even European magpies!

The Siamese Fighting Fish doesn’t recognise his reflection so when he sees it he assumes its another fish and tries to defend his territory from it.


Q: Is there a special part of the brain for thinking about the self?

A: No – scans of the brains of people who are thinking about their selves show that activity is spread over lots of different areas. Also, no-one has ever suffered any brain damage that removes their sense of self so it seems that being conscious of yourself might depend on activity throughout the brain.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? [Key Stages 2-4]

Opening Questions

How do we understand what other people are thinking?


Play the following video for the audience:

Ask the audience which colour box the brain is in now. Ask them which colour box the child thinks its in and where they are going to look for it.

Explain that this trick relies on what we call a ‘Theory of Mind’ – having a theory about what other people are thinking. Only by having a Theory of Mind can we understand that other people can have beliefs (e.g. believing the brain was where he had left it) that are different from our own. We find it funny because we empathise with their confusion, also a very sophisticated social skill.

Discussion Points

Q: At what age do children develop a Theory of Mind?

A: Scientists argue about the age at which children develop a Theory of Mind but they only consistently pass this sort of task at around 4- to 5-years of age.