Social Cognitive Development and Children’s Engagement in Dance: A Mixed Methods Study

Megan G. Stutesman

Advisor: Thalia R Goldstein, PhD, Department of Psychology

Committee Members: Adam Winsler, James Thompson, Kimberly Sheridan

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March 18, 2024, 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM


Connections between dance and social cognitive abilities have been purported by philosophers, artists, and teachers for millennia. Children engage in dance at high rates, both casually and formally, and childhood participation across other art forms has been empirically connected to social cognitive development. However, there has been no examination of potential connections between children’s dance participation and social cognitive development in a critical social cognitive skill, theory of mind. In the present study, children who participated in dance (N = 65) were compared on multiple facets of theory of mind to a treated control group (N = 47) over one academic year. Quantitative results revealed that compared to control group children, dance group children had better affective theory of mind for bodily expressed emotional states at baseline; Prior years of dance experience, regardless of current group, was related to increased affective theory of mind ability. In the qualitative strand, dance teacher interviews (N =17) and parent and child open-ended responses (N = 65) were thematically coded. Qualitative themes triangulated quantitative findings and illuminated the connected pedagogical and phenomenological processes in dance education, including repeated practice of embodying emotions, reading embodied emotions, and executive functions. Taken together, the mixed methods findings suggest that children who participate in dance may have augmented affective theory of mind because they are better able to infer other’s emotions based on body language, and that dance may be a promising route to support children’s social cognitive development.