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Do it with me, not to me – Why Declarative Language Works!

May 2, 2022 | Uncategorized

Declarative language is using comments or statements to say aloud what you think or know. 

Declarative language does not demand a verbal response from the communication partner.  

Declarative language invites the communication partner to share in an experience.

Children who are neurodiverse often have delays in both their expressive and receptive language abilities. They do not naturally develop the same early social skills as their neurotypical peers such as making eye contact, sharing smiles and other facial expressions, babbling, and using gestures (waving or pointing). 

 Another key difference is the absence of back-and-forth early imitation and engagement. These include games such as peekaboo where the child begins to develop reciprocity and the ability to anticipate or predict their communication partners behaviour. 

 Often because there is a lack of reciprocity and the absence of early social skills, parents and other adults in the child’s life will use what we refer to as imperative language. These include questions and instructions to find a way to engage with their child. The challenge with using this type of communication is that the child learns that in communication there is always a right or wrong answer and communication with others involves only questions and instructions. 

 Using this type of language can sometimes get a quick response from the child. For example, “what colour is that?”, “red” or “go get your shoes” and then the child goes and gets their shoes. This interaction often ends here unless a subsequent question is asked or instruction is given. 

 By telling the child what to do, we are now allowing them to think and consider the whole picture. By asking questions, we are not only teaching the child that the main purpose of communicating with someone else is to get something from them rather than share an experience. Communicating imperatively implies there is an expected answer. If the child does not know the answer or even understand the question, this is going to lead to increased stress and diminish their confidence and willingness to engage.  

Here are some suggestions:

Each time you go to ask your child a question, ask yourself “am I 100% sure I don’t know the answer?” By pausing and asking yourself this, you too will naturally then consider what is the purpose of what am I about to say, can I phrase this in another way to engage my child. 

 Replace questions with comments or statements. Using the above examples of the shoes and colour red, we could replace these with: “My favorite colour is red”, as you point at the car OR “They are sparkly red shoes”, as you point at the shoes or use your eye to reference them. The shoe instruction example, could be replaced with “The ground will be wet outside”, as you look in the direction of the child’s shoes OR “I am putting my shoes on to go to the park.” 

Be patient – by using declarative language you are building the underlying social framework and skills your child needs for later conversational interactions. 

Author: Kimberly Elter – Occupational Therapist