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  • Writer's pictureLittle Bird

Language matters

Updated: May 7, 2023

I've recently learned about declarative language. Not that it wasn't something I hadn't used before, and it is a term that I probably had known at some point or another. But recently I've become aware of it as an important distinction in language and how I relate to the kids I work with, or my own child, which can make a huge difference in how a child responds and learns (or doesn't).

"Imperative language is a question or sentence that demands a response." It's a command: "Put your shoes on" or a question: "What do you want for snack?" Declarative language, on the other hand is simply a comment or statement, an observation. Imperatives have a "correct" action to perform- answering the question, or doing what is asked, whereas declaratives invite observation, evaluation and independent response.

Why is this important? For kids with social learning challenges or who have anxiety towards demands, imperative statements which require a specific response at a specific time can feel threatening or difficult. And for these kids, and for kids in general, imperative statements don't invite problem solving, perspective taking and self advocating, they usually just tell a child what to do. Declarative statements, however- such as "Grandpa is here!" (rather than "Go say hi to Grandpa"), invite the child to notice what's going on around around them, think about what an expected response might be and make their own decision about what they will do.

Here's some other examples:

An imperative statement would be "what did I just say?" whereas a declarative statement would be "I'm wondering if you heard what I just said" or "i'm not sure you heard me." The first question might make the child feel bad, or anxious if they have auditory processing or attention challenges, which can actually make it harder for them to remember or respond, whereas the second two invite connection and self-advocacy (ie. "I didn't hear you").

The imperatives "Why don't you go play with the other kids?" or "what are the other kids doing?" can create anxiety for a shy child, whereas "I wonder what the other kids are doing?... I see some kids playing in the sand, I wonder if you'd like to join them," allow for stress free observation and invitation for when the child is ready.

The imperative "stop stepping on your puzzle pieces", tells your toddler exactly what they should do, while the declarative "your feet are on the puzzle pieces!" get them to notice where their body is and come up with a response.

The imperative "what are you going to do about your missing homework?" adds pressure and stress to a student if they don't know what to do, whereas the declarative "I remember last time you..." helps with recall and learning from experience.

With the imperative "put your boots on", you're evaluating the situation and making the decision, whereas the declarative, "It's raining outside, I wonder if it's too wet for shoes", gets a child to evaluate and figure out the best footwear for themselves.

Or recently in my own OT practice, telling a child with PDA, "why don't you do one more zipline, then come choose a game?" required way too much of a specific response and created a "my wishes vs yours" dynamic (and a huge meltdown), whereas if I had used the imperatives, "you really want to do more ziplines! I wonder how many ziplines you could do in 15 minutes! I'm going to be over here by the games because I really like playing games with you," would have validated the child's feelings, created connection, and, with more regulation because of those things, invited a response when he was ready.

The "Declarative Language Handbook" (which the information above is summarized from) is a great resource for detailed (though simple and straightforward) explanations of why declarative statements are beneficial and tons of examples and strategies for building declarative statements. The website has lots of helpful articles, resources and handouts.

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