This month's featured article discusses MGH Aspire's strategy of using Declarative Language with participants to help foster their independence and build their executive functioning skills.

By Elise Wulff, MEd

MGH Aspire’s programs are specifically designed for participants to receive supportive in-the-moment feedback from staff and peers. This approach creates a variety of opportunities for our participants to develop and practice key skills in naturalistic contexts. One strategy we commonly use is declarative language – prompting the listener to observe their environment, assess the situation and problem-solve. While declarative language can be used to support goals in all areas of MGH Aspire’s “3S” model (social competency, stress management, self-awareness), this article will highlight how declarative language can be especially useful in fostering growth in independence and building executive functioning skills.

The broad term declarative language describes intentional communication used to “direct another person’s attention, comment, share information, or share interest” (Harbison, McDaniel, Yoder, 2016). ‘Declarative language,’ the strategy, is a way of giving a verbal cue so that the recipient is prompted to think of a solution, not prompted with the solution. This is a subtle but critical difference as we look to build independence. We want to help individuals in our programs ‘read the room’ and successfully act on what they observe, rather than rely on others telling them to act a certain way. Declarative language is different from a more typically used style of verbal prompting- the imperative. Often, we use the ‘imperative’ form of a prompt because it is most likely to elicit the response or behavior we hope to see.

Examples of Imperative Language:

  • “Pick up your jacket.”
  • “Say, ‘Thank you.’”
  • “Don’t forget your water bottle.”
  • “Look at her when she’s talking.”

The imperative prompt focuses on the desired behavioral outcome – what we want them to do. However, it is without an opportunity for the individual to learn the context and reasoning behind the action or decision-making. In some ways, the person providing the cue is acting as a ‘prosthetic frontal lobe’- doing all the mental work! To become truly independent in the future, the goal would be for the individual to observe, recognize the context, to self-motivate to action (initiate), and to then know what steps to take or problem-solve.

Example:  The individual gets out of the car for school, leaving her backpack behind in the car.

Imperative:   “Get your backpack!”

Declarative:   “Hm. I notice you forgot something.” Or “I wonder if there’s something you need for school today.”

In this example, declarative language reframes the prompt, inviting the individual to hear the mental cue that is driving you towards the solution. In this way, the individual can hear your mental self-talk, providing an opportunity for them to normalize how we process information to make decisions.

To reframe an imperative statement to declarative language:

1.  Indicate you are having a thought: “Hm...”
2.  Use an ‘I statement’: “I’m noticing...”; “I’m wondering...”; “I’m thinking about...”
3.  Specify the thought you are having: “Hm... I’m noticing you’re about to walk out of the house to go to school. I wonder what you might need.” (Be careful to avoid sounding sarcastic!)

Declarative language  (“I wonder what you could say…”):

    • Takes pressure off the individual
    • Is an invitation to act
    • Is a method of sharing the experience

Imperative language  (“Say hi to him.”):

    • Is a means to an end
    • Has a right or wrong answer
    • Has a predictable answer

As with any strategy, declarative language is a tool to add to the toolbox to be used at your discretion. When an individual is dysregulated, stick with imperative language to provide support. Declarative language is best used when there is a little extra time (and mental energy) available to work through the steps to find the solution and/or when you are confident the individual has strategies to call upon.