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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

PTSI: Testing children's social intelligence through play

Chesnokova Ol'ga Borisovna

PhD in Psychology

Docent, the department of Developmental Psychology, M. V. Lomonosov Moscow State University

119311, Russia, g. Moscow, ul. Stroitelei, 6, korpus 5

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Subbotsky Eugene

Doctor of Psychology

Professor, the department of Psychology, Lancaster University, Great Britain

CR0 2GG, Velikobritaniya, London oblast', g. Croydon, ul. Saffron Square, 11

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Martirosova Yuliya Viktorovna

PhD in Psychology

School Counselor, Gymnasium No.1599, Moscow

105203, Russia, g. Moscow, ul. Pervomaiskaya, 46

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This article presents the play-based test on social intelligence (PTSI) in preschool and elementary school children. The advantage of this method over traditionally employed methods is that it does not rely on the mature symbolic function. Preschool and elementary school children find it difficult to adequately react to questionnaires that require interpretation of pictures. In contrast, PTSI employs a simple play situation, easily accessible to 6-12 years old children. This situation allows a sensitive assessment of degrees of social intelligence in children while engaging them individually in an exciting play. The situation requires the participant to find the best strategy for solving a problem, report information to a partner, while making this information inaccessible to strangers and avoiding direct deception at the same time. Complemented by an external assessment of social intelligence, this test can be a useful diagnostic tool for determining strengths and weaknesses in children’s resolution of interpersonal problematic situations, including conflict of interests.

Keywords: social interactions, understanding minds, play-based test, communication, conflict of interests, social intelligence, child development, decision making, theory of mind, game

1. Introduction

The purpose of this article is to describe a Play-based Test on Social Intelligence (PTSI) for preschool and primary school children. The advantage of this test over the traditionally used methods based on questionnaires and/or pictures is that it does not require developed symbolic functions from children, since preschoolers and elementary school children have problems with understanding questionnaires and interpreting pictures. Unlike previously developed methods for assessing social intelligence, PTSI is based on a real game situation, which is easy to grasp for 6-12-year-old children.

Intelligence is the basis of goal setting, planning resources and building strategies to achieve goals [1][2], and is used in situations of uncertainty, deficit of resources, and obstacles that prevent one to achieve his or her goals [3] [4]. Social intelligence (SI) is an important component of a comprehensive intellectual abilities. Social intelligence is the ability to understand and consciously influence the communicative intentions of other people to achieve one’s own or common goals on the basis of forecasting the actions of others in situations of uncertainty and conflict of interests [3] [5].

It follows from this definition that although each communicative situation requires communication skills (social competence [6]) and the ability to understand the partner’s mind (social cognition [7] [8]), not every situation requires SI. The need in SI emerges only when there is a conflict of interests and it is necessary to find a workaround to achieve the goal. This makes a person to realize that for achieving the person’s goals there are certain obstacles on the way, and that the person’s reliance on previously gained experience will not lead to success.

Children acquire the ability to find workarounds in early childhood [9], in the context of interaction with adults or older siblings. Even animals, especially those organized in complex hierarchical groups, sometimes demonstrate social manoeuvring with the goal to outsmart their higher-status members of the pack to gain access to resources, avoiding direct confrontation with more powerful individuals at the same time[10]. In the folklore of many peoples, there exist ‘folklore tricksters tales’ about smart, but pretending to be simple-minded heroes, who employ their SI as a protective shield in conditions of limitation of their rights by more powerful individuals. For example, there are widely known stories about Brother Rabbit ( Br'er Rabbit) - a character of the Black people's folklore on the plantations, where enslaved Africans used their SI to overcome adversities in interactions with their white slave-owners [11] [12]. The allocation of SI in a special category of intellectual ability makes it necessary to develop special psychological methods of diagnostics of this ability.

2. Diagnostics of SI in children

Methods developed to measure SI of adults and adapted for children and adolescents are relatively rare. Among the most famous is the 6-factor test of social intelligence by Guilford-Sullivan [13], tested on Russian sample and intended for use on children from 9 years of age [14]. The test consists of six subtests - five non-verbal and one verbal. The nonverbal subtest is aimed at diagnostics of the ability to understand non-verbal communicative indicators (facial expressions, postures, and gestures), and the dynamics of interactive situations on the material of consecutive pictures. The verbal subtest is aimed at diagnostics of the ability to understand changes in the meaning of phrases depending on the dynamics of the context. Later, using this test, the researchers showed that in people with high social intelligence the level of General abstract intelligence can be both high and low [15] [16].

It should be noted that the use of the above test on children causes a number of difficulties: children of primary and secondary school age experience difficulties in understanding the drawing of the test material in certain subtests. In our view, the difficulties in perceiving and understanding of drawings in the test material by children are caused by two factors. First, the technique was created in the mid 1960-ies with the use of the material drawings of American comic books, the style of which for American people of that time was organic and familiar but has been long outdated since. Second, originally the test battery was created for adolescents aged 10 to 15 years. Subsequent cultural adaptation of the test was conducted in France and in Russia for adults (18 years and older) [3] [4] [16]. Psychometric analysis of this test revealed its insufficient level of reliability and validity for use in educational and clinical practice [17][18].

Among other methods worth mentioning are the Tromso’s questionnaire aimed at self-assessing the children’s own level of SI by adolescents (subtests on social information about interpersonal situations, social skills and social reflection) [19] and the questionnaire aimed at rating of children's peers’ social intelligence (PESI) (subtests on social observation and empathy) [20] [21]. These methods are difficult to conduct and measure various psychological constructs, consisting of a large number of components, many of which can be attributed to either academic intelligence or personality traits. In addition, testing SI in children by using questionnaires is limited by the children’s verbal intelligence and their reflective abilities.

Among recently proposed methods of testing SI in children is a questionnaire, in which various situations of communicative interactions between children and their parents, peers and teachers are described to a child; the child is then offered several ways of dealing with these situations and encouraged to evaluate these ways according to their degree of adequacy [18]. This technique covers a wide range of students relationships with relevant people in their lives and allows to establish correlations of SI with other measures (sociometric status and overall academic performance). Limitations of this methodology, recognized by the authors themselves, is its reliance on developed linguistic skills of students, and the difficulty of the statistical treatment of data. This makes this technique most relevant for senior school children (mostly graduate classes), rather than for children of primary school age and preschoolers. More appropriate for younger ages are the methods of assessment of SI by placing a child in imagined problematic situations, which allow solutions both with and without application of SI [4]. As is the case with the tests on SI for adults, tests created for children continue to be analysed on their validity and reliability and elicit conflicting views on these tests’ compliance with psychometric standards [4] [16] [18] [22].

Difficulties of creating diagnostic tools on SI are aggravated by the fact that situations in which SI is manifested are diverse and difficult to formalize using a single test procedure; in addition, the children's reactions to verbally presented hypothetical situations may not match the children’s actual behaviours in similar situations in real life [18].

3. Theoretical basis of PTSI for pre-schoolers and elementary school children

In developing PTSI, we proceeded from the ideas of Thorndike, who believed that there is a category of people whose intelligence may stay arrested when they are tested on the out-of-context abstract intellectual tasks (so-called paper – and – pencil format intelligence tasks). These are the kind of people whose intelligence is at its best not in dealing with ideas, but in dealing with concrete situations of real life. It is to this category of subjects, in our opinion, that children of preschool and younger school ages belong.

As noted above, existing diagnostic tests on SI for older children and adolescents are counted on participants with the well-developed symbolic function. These methods include questionnaires, which require a certain level of development of reflection, the picture-based tests, which are quite abstract and not always culturally adapted, and tests based on verbal description of interpersonal situations, understanding of which is highly dependent on the level of development of verbal intelligence. It is difficult to expect preschoolers and younger students to be able to respond adequately to these methods of testing SI. For these age categories, more adequate the methods are that place a child in concrete social problem situations given in the form of a play. The subject of this paper is designing of such a play situation aimed at determining the level of SI in children.

When developing PTSI, we proceeded also from the fact that behaviour is determined not only by intellectual factors, but also by the child’s motivations and executive function [23]. That is why presenting a communicative situation only through its verbal description or drawing seems to us a serious limitation in the attempt to test the child’s ability of planning and implementing effective tactics of achieving the goal in the communicative situation. In order to overcome this limitation, we took the path of play-modelling the communicative situation, in which the child could use his or her SI tactics for successfully reaching the goal.

In a conflict of interests situation, the goal can be reached with the use of socially intelligent tactics of different levels of complexity. This calls for a differentiated approach to assessment of the level of development of social intelligence skills of preschool and elementary school children. As a prototype of such communicative situation, a situation was needed in which there is uncertainty in the conditions of achieving the goal, a conflict of interests of the characters and more than one possibility of finding a workaround to achieve the desired result. These requirements were met by the situation of an attempted robbery of a car with bank cargo (money) by a criminal who manages to eavesdrop on the conversation between the sender of the goods and the recipient in order to find out which of the two cars passing at the same time is transporting the money. The sender must communicate the information to the recipient in such a way that the recipient understands, but the burglar doesn’t. If, in solving this task, the child did not use the socially intellectual tactics, the technique was repeated with a demonstration of the consequences of what would happen if the robber knew what car the money was transported in. Also, additional questions were asked. The second test and additional questions revealed children in the zone of proximate development of SI, who could learn from their mistakes and quickly switch to socially intellectual tactics after the unsuccessful first attempt and (or) as a result of prompting questions.

4. Stages of development of PTSI for preschool and elementary school children

In the first stage of developing PTSI we checked the suitability of the proposed play situation to children aged 5 to 11 years (senior and preparatory groups of kindergartens and primary school children in grades 1- 4). Children of kindergartens and primary schools of Moscow were told the story, in which due to the inability of the sender of goods to choose socially-intelligent tactical behaviour, she failed to prevent a robbery of the truck with the money. An indicator of the lack of use of such tactics was a direct message of the sender on the location of the money in one of the cars, and the inability to verbally describe it in a way that was understandable only to the recipient, but not to the robber. On having heard this story, the children were encouraged to discuss why the robbery had succeeded despite a warning from the police. Children were asked to retell the story to determine their ability to reproduce the story’s key moments. It was revealed that to children under the age of 6 years the story is hard to understand, so the next stages were (will be) only conducted with 6-11-year-old children.

The second stage was the expert assessment of the levels of SI in finding solution of this problem. Experts were 2 kindergarten educators, 4 elementary school teachers and three professional psychologists, who were not familiar with the aim of the study and evaluated answers on the optimal level of expediency to achieve the goal: to bring the cargo to locations safely and with a minimum loss of time. There have been 3 possible levels of children's responses on the criterion of SI: low, medium and high. The experts agreed on that the highest level is reached when the sender avoids direct deception and still provides that that the goods are delivered without a loss of time and to their exact destination. Assessment of expert estimates by Cronbach's alpha revealed a high level of consistency of estimates, with α = 0.89. Since during testing the children were asked additional questions, the total score obtained by the child was a composite of two estimates: estimates for the solution of the main task of the test and estimates for response to additional questions. Scores for children's responses were adjusted so that the levels of replies, installed by experts, did not overlap (see the scheme of experts’ estimates of the levels of SI and the scheme of scoring).

In the third stage we will define the validity and reliability of the method. For determining reliability, children of 1, 2, 3, and 4 grades of elementary school will be tested by this technique. In each age group, the responses of children will be recorded. Assessment of children's response levels will be conducted according to the degree of consistency with expert estimates.

To check the reliability , the test will be repeated with the same children in a time interval of 4 weeks. Competitive validity will be checked by comparing the data of our methods with subtests according to the research methodology of SI by Guildford-Sullivan. To assess the prognostic validity of our methodology, teachers will rank students according to the level of the students’ SI. The ranking results will be compared with the scores received by children on PTSI.

5. Play-based Test of Social Intelligence (PTSI), full version

Unit 1. Preparatory phase

1. Materials

-- Two toy cars of different colours: blue and red.

-- Two spare wheels attached to the back of a car with a paperclip or glue. When the tire of a car gets ‘punctured’, the spare wheel can easily be attached to the broken wheel's side with a clip or a magnet.

-- Two houses cut out of cardboard, one is labelled "Mail" and another "Bank"

-- Two suitcases cut out of cardboard and easily placed in the body of the cars. On is labelled "Money" and another "Mail", the reverse side of the suitcase "Money" is painted in black, the reverse side of the suitcase “Mail” is white.

-- Two human figures cut out of cardboard. One is labelled "Recipient" and the other "Sender".

-- A figure of a robber with a gun in his hand, cut from a cardboard.

2. Setting of testing

A table and two chairs: One for a child, and a second for the adult. The adult has at his or her part of the table, on the left - materials for the test, and on the right - a notepad with a test set-up and scheme for scoring. Both the notepad and the scheme are printed on separate sheets.

Unit 2. Training phase

(3) Instructing

Demonstration of the technique

-- We're going to play a game called "deliver the goods". You will need to carry on the vehicles cargo from one city to another. First, the game involves two people: the SENDER of the cargo and the RECEPIENT. You will be the sender of the cargo (the child receives the figure of a sender), and I'm the recipient (an adult takes the figure of the recepient). Later the third character - a BURGLAR – will join us.

-- You have 2 CARS -- BLUE and RED.

- Each car has a SPARE tire, which can be used if the car will puncture the tire (the adult shows, while the child repeats).

-- Every car carries its CARGO - MONEY (adult shows) or MAIL (adult shows). The goods must be put in cars so as not to be seen, what kind of cargo each car is carrying, in case that a robber turns up in the road and wants to take the money.

-- You can put in EACH TRUCK only ONE CARGO. You choose which truck carries what cargo.

-- Cars are driving on the same road. They leave and arrive simultaneously.

(4) Training game

Let's try to play.

I am the RECIPIENT of the goods. I don't know which car carries money, and which carries mail. You are the SENDER of the goods.

So, before you send me the loads, I will call you and ask what kind of car carries what cargo. When cars come to me, I'll dispatch the car with the money to the BANK (showing to child), and the car with mail to the POST OFFICE (showing to child). Each of us will speak for one’s character - as if we were voicing the cartoon.

And now let's start the game. Please, load the trucks - each load you can put in any car.

[Here and further in the course of the experiment, if when loading the cars, the child does something wrong (e.g., puts loads of "Mail" and "Money" in one car), the adult reminds him or her of the rules of the game and corrects the error].

Adult says: "Ding Ding, what car is carrying the money?". The child should tell the colour of the truck that carries the money. Adult says: "Well done, you understand. Send the cars."

The child sends the cars. When the cars arrive to the recipient, the recipient sends the car with money to the Bank, and the car with mail - to the Post-office. Then the recipient (adult) sends empty cars back to the child.

Unit 3. Introductory phase

(5) Round 1 with the replacement of a wheel (the goal is to establish the connection between the colour of one of the trucks and the damage of the wheel)

Adult says: "Now, load the trucks - you can put each cargo in any truck". Then adult asks, "Ding Ding, what car is carrying the money?". The child names the colour of the car, which carries the money. The adult answers: "Well done, you understand. Send the cars."

The child sends the cars. This time, however, the adult suddenly stops the car with the money in the middle of the road and says, "Oh, this car (you must name the COLOR of the car) has a puncture, it is necessary to change a wheel", while continuing to drive the car with the mail to the destination. When the child changed the wheel, the adult says: "Ding Ding, the car (calls the COLOR of the car) with the mail has arrived, and where is the car with the money?". The child explains the reason for the delay and delivers the car with the money to the recipient, and the recipient sends the car to the Bank.

(6) Round 2 with the replacement of a wheel in the same car (the goal is to strengthen in the child’s memory the connection between the colour of one of the cars and the damage of the wheels)

This round is the same as Round 1, with only one difference: this time the adult stops it the middle of the road the car of the same colour that had its wheel changed in Round 1 (REGARDLESS of the cargo). The adult says: "Oh, this car (names the COLOR) has its wheel broken for the SECOND TIME – a puncture again, it is necessary to change the wheel"

When the child changed the wheel, the adult says: "Ding Ding, in this car (an ADULT names the colour of the car) the wheel breaks all the time and has to be changed!".

(7) Memory test on wheels’ failure

Adult asks the child "In which car does the wheel break down all the time?". If the child does not remember or calls the wrong colour, the adult corrects the child and reminds him or her the correct answer.

Unit 4. Diagnostic phase

(8) Instructing

An adult introduces a new participant of the game - the ROBBER - and tells the child: "Thus far we played together, and now the ROBBER arrived in our city (the adult retrieves the figure of the robber, which has been hidden before this point of time). He wants to rob the car with money. He just arrived in the city and did not see our last game. Now you and I will have to play a little differently. As before, you are a SENDER and you will load the cars, and I, the RECIPIENT, will receive the cars and send them further along the line. I, as before, will call you and ask what cargo each car carries. But the ROBBER will LISTEN to our conversation on the phone, he will carefully listen to everything that you will tell me, he wants to find out in which particular car the money will go. Your task as a SENDER is to explain to me in what car the money will be, but in such a way that I understand which car carries the money, but the ROBBER does not. Do you understand what exactly you need to do? Please, repeat"

(9) Social Intelligence Test 1

A child loads the cars. The adult says, “Ding Ding, this is a call from the police. There is information that the robber may be on the road. He can stop only one car, so he needs to know in advance which car is carrying the money. He has a listening device, and he can eavesdrop on our conversations. We must be careful." An adult lays a robber figure to one side side in the middle of the road. The adult also tells the child: “Just in case, check to see if there is a spare tire on the machine that had it BROKEN TWO TIMES”

The adult then asks the TEST QUESTION “Ding-ding, WHAT CAR IS CARRYING THE MONEY?”. On the child’s response, the adult says: “Well, I understand. Send the cars.”

Types of children's responses in Test 1 on SI, and scoring

There are 3 possible types of answers to the TEST QUESTION:

(1) The child names the COLOR of the car, which has MONEY; (2) The child names the COLOR of the car that is NOT carrying MONEY; and (3) The child says that the money is in the car, which used to have the wheels BROKEN (if the money is in that car) or in the car, WHICH DID NOT HAVE THE WHEELS BROKEN (if the money were loaded in another car). Variations of the test procedure depending on the type of response are given below.

Answer 1

The child names the COLOR of the car, which has MONEY (no understanding that it is necessary to conceal from the robber which car is carrying the money).

ADULT’s ACTIONS: Adult takes the figure of the robber and simulates the robbery of the car which carries the money, then calls the child and says "Hey, you know what happened? The car with the money’s been robbed. The money is stolen and does not reach the Bank." The aim of these actions is to demonstrate to the child the consequences of his or her ineffective tactics, for awareness and possible subsequent changes.

Next, Test 2 on SI, identical to Test 1, is carried out. The purpose of Test 2 is to give the child the opportunity to improve their performance on the basis of awareness of their unsuccessful actions in Test 1 and the feedback provided by the adult.

-- If in Test 2 Answer 1 is repeated, the additional Question 1 is asked "And how could you tell me what car is carrying the money in such a way that I, the recipient, could guess which car has the money, and the robber could not?". The purpose of the additional question is to help the child see the error of their responses in Tests 1 and 2, and therefore prompt the correct answer.

If the child does not respond correctly to the additional question, she gets a SI Score = 0.

If the child answers correctly on an additional question, she gets 0.25 points. Thus, the maximal score under this version of answers is 0.25 points.

-- If the child is in the Test 2 rises to more adequate Answer 2, she is asked additional Question 1, which is identical to the previous Question 1, and with the same purpose.

If the child does not respond correctly to the additional question, she gets a SI Score = 1.

If the child answers correctly on an additional question, she gets a SI Score = 1.25.

- If in Test 2 the child immediately rises to the correct Answer 3, she gets a Score on SI = 3. The basis for this scoring is a significant progress (from a misunderstanding to a full understanding of finding a workaround to the problem). The child is then asked additional Question 2 "But why did you tell me that the money is in the truck, which had (did not have) a wheel broken, rather than just telling me the colour of the truck?". The purpose of the question is to find out whether the child understands the tactical meaning of his or her answer, or the answer was given by accident.

If the child answers correctly the additional question, then she receives a further 0.25 points. Thus, the maximal score under this version of answers is 3.25 points.

Answer 2

The child names the COLOR of the car, which carries the mail, purposefully distorting information, knowing that the robber overhears their conversation with the recipient (there is the understanding that it is necessary to hide from the robber which car is carrying the money, but the concealment is achieved through deception of both the robber, and the recipient).

ADULT’s ACTIONS: the robber stops the car of the named colour and seeing that the car has the mail and not the money, runs away with nothing. The adult (who 'doesn't know' about the distortion of information by the sender) sends the car with the mail to the Bank, and the car with the money to the post office, and tells the child: "Ding-Ding, they are calling from the bank and say they got the wrong car". Then the adult redirects the car with the money to the Bank, and the car with the mail to the post office.

After this, Test 2 on social intelligence, identical to Test 1, is carried out.

- If in Test 2 Answer 2 is repeated, the additional Question 1 is asked (see above).

If the child does not respond correctly to the additional question, she gets a SI Score = 3.

If the child answers the additional question correctly, she gets 0.25 points. Thus, the maximal score on this combination of answers is 3.25 points.

- If in Test 2 the child rises straight to the correct Answer 3, she gets a SI Score = 4. The basis for this scoring is a significant progress (from a misunderstanding to a full understanding of finding a workaround to the problem). The child is then asked additional Question 2 (see above).

If the child answers the additional question correctly, she gets the additional 0.25 points. Thus, the maximal score on this version of answers is 4.25 points.

Answer 3

The child does not name the COLOR of the car, but instead points out to fact that is known only to the sender and the recipient of the goods. In response to the question of the recipient in which car the money is, the child answers that in the car in which the WHEEL used to BRAKE (if the money is in this car), or in that car in which the WHEEL did not BRAKE (if the money is loaded into another car) (there is an understanding of how to inform the recipient in such a way that the robber does not understand).

Testing stops and the additional Question 2 is asked.

If the child does not answer the additional question correctly, then she receives a SI Score = 5.

If the additional question is answered correctly, then the child gets the additional 0.25 points. Thus, the maximal score on this version of answers is 5.25 points.

Unit 5. Data processing

(10) Categorical assessment of the level of SI by experts

Low: scores 0 -1.25

Moderate: scores 3-4.25

High: scores 5-5.25

(11) Design for statistical data processing

Independent variables:

1. Age (N levels)

2. Gender (2)

3. Stage of education (Kindergarten – School)

4. Type of development (2: Typical – Atypical development)

5. Others: Family (2: Complete – Incomplete), Level of General intelligence (3: High, medium, low), Personal characteristics (2: Sociable – Unsociable), Sociometric status (3: High, medium, low)

Dependent variable: Score on SI, a continuous variable varying from 0 to 5.25

Recommended statistical programs: ANOVA, Pearson correlation for continuous variables, t-test

(12) Test set-up

Unit 1. Preparatory phase. (1) Materials. (2) Setting of testing

Unit 2. Training phase: (3) Instructing (4) Training game

Unit 3. Introductory phase: (5) Round 1 with the replacement of a wheel; (6) Round 2 with the replacement of a wheel in the same car; (7) Memory test on wheels’ failure

Unit 4. Diagnostic phase: (8) Instructing; (9) Social Intelligence Test 1, followed by re-testing and additional questions

Unit 5. Data processing: (10) Categorical assessment of the level of SI by experts

(11) Design for statistical data processing

Calculation of scores for the full version of PTSI


5. PTSI, the short version

The testing of the child on the full version of PTSI takes approximately 12 minutes. The full version allows not only to determine the current level of SI, but also to find out whether or not the child is in the zone of proximal development for SI and, thus, whether he or she is able to improve their performance as a result of the experience gained in Test 1 and (or) realizing their mistakes when prompted by the additional questions.

For more modest objectives of express-diagnostics of the current level of SI a shortened version of PTSI is offered. The description of this version fully corresponds to the description of the full version of PTSI, with the only difference being that in a shortened version of PTSI a child is only offered Test 1, without Test 2 and additional questions.

Calculation of scores for the short version of PTSI



The proposed play-based test for determining the level of SI in preschool and elementary school children (PTSI) uses the diagnostic methods that are most appropriate for these age categories, namely, placing a child in a specific social problem situation presented in the form of a game. In this case, the child’s answers do not require advanced abstract symbolic thinking, which is necessary for understanding questionnaires and hypothetically described interpersonal situations. Complemented by an external assessment of children’s social intelligence that manifests itself in various behavioural phenomena (cunning, lack of naivety, leadership, a tendency to manipulate) by people observing children in real communicative situations, PTSI can be a useful diagnostic tool for identifying strengths and weaknesses in solving interpersonal problem situations that include a conflict of interests.

Since the full version of PTSI probes the zone of proximal development of SI, its use contains an element of stimulation of SI in children and can serve as the first step for the purposeful formation of the child’s ability to find effective indirect ways to achieve goals in conflicting communicative situations.

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