girls finger-painting with mum smiling by her side
girls finger-painting with mum smiling by her side

Using language to improve problem solving & executive functioning

The way we use language is very powerful. It can motivate, reinforce thoughts/actions/behaviours, be demanding or collaborative, kind or hurtful, and it can also teach a child to become an independent thinker.

Need to know 

The way we use language is very powerful. It can motivate, reinforce thoughts/actions/behaviours, be demanding or collaborative, kind or hurtful, and it can also teach a child to become an independent thinker.

Declarative language is simply saying out loud what you know or think in the form of a comment, rather than directing it at a person. You can use it to; 

  • Share your opinion – I love it when your room is tidy; 
  • Make a prediction – I think the timer is going to go off soon; 
  • Announce / celebrate – I really enjoyed playing a boardgame with you; 
  • Observe – I notice that your sister said she wanted to borrow your book; 
  • Reflect on past experience – last time the remote went missing we found it under the couch; 
  • Problem solve – we might need the big scissors to cut it.

Parents often use what is called “imperative” language, which is used to request or demand something of their child. Imperative language can be used to:

  • Request something – can you please feed the dog?;
  • Demand an action – put your shoes on;
  • Give choices – do you want the blue cup or the red cup?;
  • Ask a question – what time does soccer start?

Why it’s important

Using declarative language to communicate with your child removes the direct demands that come with communicating using imperative language. Declarative language doesn’t require your child to give you a verbal response. What it does do, is that it creates the space to share experiences and invites your child to observe the context, connect it to what they know, and then think about what needs to be done.

As you model your thinking out loud you take your child along that journey so that they can start to practice their own problem solving. This is really helpful for children who struggle with executive dysfunction;, you provide the sign posts, and the child will follow using their critical thinking skills.

Declarative language is also a valuable tool to help children link future experiences with past memories and emotions. This is very helpful for kids with ADHD who have a weak episodic memory. For example, your child might be concerned about the upcoming swimming carnival, so you might say, “Remember how nervous you were last year before the swimming carnival? You relaxed as soon as you saw your friends and had a great day. This year will be even more fun because you’re an even more confident swimmer!”.

Tips & strategies

Declarative language can be used at any time except when safety is an issue. In this case, you want to be quick, firm and succinct when telling your child what you need them to do.

Practice using declarative language during your regular routines by replacing these common demands and requests:

  • Get your school bag
    • What to say instead: I wonder where your school bag might be
  • Let your sister have a turn
    • What to say instead: I notice that your sister really wants a turn
  • Put your dirty clothes in the laundry
    • What to say instead: I see your clothes haven’t made their way to laundry
  • You have 5 minutes to get out the door
    • What to say instead: I think we need to leave soon to make it on time
  • Eat your breakfast
    • What to say instead: Last time you missed breakfast you were very hungry

Encourage independent thinking by making statements that aid with planning a task. For example:

  • I wonder what you need to get started;
  • I imagine deciding what to do first is important;
  • Sometimes looking at examples really helps;
  • I notice we have paper but we are out of glue;
  • I think this is a very big task to complete in one day.

Give your child enough time to process your comments. You want to give them the opportunity to work through all the options before formulating an answer.

Take a few seconds when you want to ask a question or use a command to get your child to do something, and see if you can replace it with a statement. Use the following: 

I wonder…

  • “when your project is due” instead of “don’t you have to hand in your project next week?”
  • “if it will continue to rain today” instead of “take your umbrella” 
  • “what book you brought home” instead of “where is your book?”

I see… 

  • “your water bottle is empty” instead of “fill up your water bottle”
  • “everybody has packed up to leave” instead of “why haven’t you packed up your things?” 
  • “you haven’t touched your dinner” instead of “why aren’t you eating?” 

I notice… 

  • “your friend would like to have a turn” instead of “let your friend have a turn” 
  • “your hat is not in your backpack” instead of “where is your hat?” 
  • “your cousins are going home, let’s see them out” instead of “come and say goodbye to your cousins”

I feel… 

  • “frustrated when we are late to school” instead of “why can’t you ever be ready on time?” 
  • “worried that we are going to miss the train” instead of “hurry up we are going to miss the train” 
  • “really happy we are outside” instead of “aren’t you glad you got out of the house?” 

I think…

  • “we might need to turn on the dishwasher” instead of “have you turned on the dishwasher?” 
  • “the milk might not be enough” instead of “don’t drink all the milk” 
  • “tonight is your sister’s turn to choose” instead of “let your sister choose”

It might take a while to feel comfortable using declarative language. Start small by picking a part of your day that you want to improve, but have the extra time to work through solutions together with your child. Don’t forget to record tricky behaviour to see if the change in approach is having a positive impact. 

References

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