Declarative Language for Developing Executive Functioning Skills in Children with ADHD

Most students with ADHD have “refocusing and redirection” listed on their 504 or IEP accommodation plans due to challenges with “listening.” Despite their intact hearing abilities, these students often rely on constant prompting even for simple tasks.

The problem is, constant prompting is not only disruptive and unsustainable ,it is also essentially counterproductive.

The level of prompting required just to get through the day quickly creates a self sustaining cycle of prompt dependence that robs the child of the opportunity to develop the executive functions required to complete tasks independently. 

Three color circle to describe the process of prompt dependence in children with ADHD. The child does not do the action, the adult prompts, the child complies and it continues around.

Declarative language, which I learned about from Linda Murphy’s invaluable book, is an effective communication technique that most teachers and therapists naturally excel in but rarely apply to the day to day procedural learning and behavior. 

This article introduces the use of declarative language to scaffold the development of executive functioning skills in children with ADHD.

Executive functions are cognitive processes that enable us to ‘ execute” any action beyond an impulse. They develop through childhood experiences and unstructured play, and are often approximately 30% delayed in children with ADHD. 

Picture of children playing outside with the words unstructured Play is how we develop executive function skills printed in large bold print.

To foster development of executive functioning skills, including cognitive flexibility, impulse control, perspective-taking, and problem-solving, mere explanations will not suffice. Executive functions are “long developing skills” because students must actively practice using these skills to build the neurological pathways in the brain to use them.

The constant prompting typically used to help students with ADHD, ie “ Take out your pencil” , ” Put on your coat, “ “Start your work” , “Where is your homework?”,  is considered imperative language.

Imperative language is a sentence or question that demands a response. It has a right or wrong answer with a compliance or non compliance demand attached. Imperatives demand a reaction from the student, even as questions.

Many kids with ADHD tend to perceive every imperative as a threat. The perceived threat of imperative language can be so intense, that simply asking a student to name their favorite ice cream flavor can trigger a knee jerk defense and increase stress levels enough to shut down learning. 

Declarative language, is a statement that doesn’t demand a response.  It’s a observation, devoid of pressure, and most importantly, it invites the listener to engage in problem-solving. Declarative language, with its absence of judgment, sparks curiosity, cueing the listener to observe and act without the weight of right or wrong.

It’s a powerful tool, especially for ADHD individuals, as it decreases defensiveness and stirs curiosity, a potent force for them

Imperative vs Declarative Language comparison image.  Imperative is illustrated by a woman holding up two question marks, while declarative is illustrated by a person searching with a magnifying glass.

Declarative language can be a game-changing tool to initiate problem-solving and elevate situational awareness in children. Repetitive practice of problem-solving is vital. It empowers them to observe problems, devise plans, and act.

A picture of a desk with a pencil on the floor.  Pick up your pencil, an imperative statement and " There is a pencil on the floor" a declarative statement is contrasted above.

Pick up your pencil” is an imperative prompt.  The cognitive development involved in this moment is to comply or not comply.  Nothing is learned about the process. Do it or don’t do it.  

“ There is a pencil on the floor… “ is declarative. This statement ends with a pause. The difference here is that we intentionally direct the prompt at starting the process.

The cue invites the learner to look and notice . You are explicitly creating the space for the child to notice, then think, then plan, then act . * Increased opportunity for practice is required because “pause think act” is not something an impulsive brain learns incidentally. 

This simple shift in our language fosters exploration and self-initiated cognitive processes and builds situational awareness. Each instance creates stronger connections.

We’ are switching to prompting the thinking process, the inner dialogue, not just performance. By integrating declarative language, we invite children to exercise their executive function skills throughout the day.

Conversely, the continuous use of questions and imperative language robs them of these opportunities, creating prompt dependency that stifles independent thinking and learning from their own actions and the environment around them. 

“OMG, I will!” or “Stop yelling at me !” ? were the typical responses I grew accustomed to receiving each day whenever I prompted my daughter to feed the cat. This was her agreed upon responsibility, but she would forget.

Not only was I not yelling, many mornings , it was a “simple” question, “Did you feed the cat?”

I applied this newly learned strategy. I purposely changed my daily prompt to a declarative variation of “ The cat looks hungry“. Immediately, her defense was disarmed. Instead of snapping at me, she looked at the cat, thought for a moment, smiled, validated the cats hunger, (speaking of course to the cat) then fed her.  

Removing the imperative removed the perceived judgement from my ” simple” question. It created space for her to notice the contextual cues and problem solve what to do with a hungry cat.

In less than a week, she began to independently feed the cat. She noticed exactly what I noticed right before I would prompt her. When the cat walks in the room in the morning and meows, she’s hungry.  Feed her. 

I did not realize that what my daughter had learned was the precise “cat feeding routine” that I taught her. The one we practiced daily for a year and a half. When Mom walks into the room and tells you to feed the cat, feed her. 

  • Start by reducing adult involvement in one daily prompt.
  • Allow time; children may seem puzzled initially. 
  • Remember questions are imperatives!!! – Inject curiosity into your observation, not a question mark. 
  • Prioritize safety; pick suitable moments for practice. 
  • Ensure you have their attention; call their name before talking.
  • Don’t forget to pause, to grant the child processing time; count to at least 10 in your head.

Acknowledging the challenge of prompt dependency among learners with ADHD, we find a solution in declarative language. For children struggling with perspective-taking , impulse control and episodic memory, this approach can be transformative.

By applying this technique, we foster independent thinking, freeing children from perpetual prompts that hinder self-initiated actions and learning. With declarative language, we are shifting from prompting actions to prompting inner thought processes, a critical aspect of executive function.

Choosing some of the classroom procedures you find your student stuck in is a great place to start.

If you aim to scaffold the executive function skills of reading the room, solving problems, and taking perspectives, I urge you to learn more about declarative language.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: