Does executive function influence the development of theory of mind in elementary students?

  • Qiyang Gao
  • Qianyao Huang
  • Qiaoling Zhang
  • Wei ChenEmail author


The majority of studies on the development of theory of mind (ToM) have focused on the preschool years. The current study examined the impact of conversation-based ToM training and whether a battery of executive function (EF) performance can predict the improvement in Chinese elementary students’ ToM from training. A conversation-based training program was implemented for one month and evaluated with pre- and posttest measures of ToM. Ninety-six children were randomly assigned to intervention (n = 49) and control groups (n = 47). Findings indicate that the intervention group demonstrated significantly greater gains in ToM than the control group and that individual differences in a battery of EF performance can predict the improvement of ToM. These results are consistent with the beliefs that conversations about the mind foster improvements in theory of mind in school-aged children, and executive functioning skills can assist school-age children in constructing ToM by facilitating the ability to learn from relevant experience.


Theory of mind Executive function Training Chinese elementary students 



We thank three anonymous reviewers for their comments on this study.


This work was supported by the Philosophy and Social Science Foundation of Zhejiang Province (No. 18NDJC112YB), The National Social Science Foundation (No. 16CZX015), Project of the Humanities and Social Science Research of the Ministry of Education of China (No. 17YJC880111). The funding agency had no involvement in the study design, the collection, analysis and interpretation of data, the writing of the report, and nor in the decision to submit the article for publication.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical Approval

This study was approved by the Research Ethics Committee of Shaoxing University and the principals of the participating schools.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Qiyang Gao
    • 1
    • 2
  • Qianyao Huang
    • 2
  • Qiaoling Zhang
    • 2
  • Wei Chen
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Center for Social Behavior and Developmental ScienceShaoxing UniversityShaoxingPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.School of Teacher EducationShaoxing UniversityShaoxingPeople’s Republic of China

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