Fostering a positive communicative environment for all children

Nancy Z. Schwartz Ph.D. Fostering a Positive Communicative Environment for All Children. Communication Clinic of Connecticut, LLC

Fostering a positive communicative environment at home entails establishing a declarative and imperative language ratio of 80 to 20. But what exactly is declarative and imperative communication?

Declarative language is the language of experience sharing. It is creative and dynamic in nature in that you cannot predict exactly what another person will say. Declarative language shares information, experiences and opinions.

In contrast, imperative language is a means to an end. The response to imperative language is either right or wrong. Imperative language involves questions, directions and commands.
For parents, changing your ratio of declarative and imperative language is not as easy as it sounds. Imperative language is habitual and is well reinforced by responses from children. Consequently, you will need to work hard and self-monitor. But in the end, it is well worth the effort.


Do understand the difference between declarative and imperative language

Declarative language is creative and dynamic in nature in that you cannot predict exactly what another person will say. The goal of declarative communication is to gain another person’s perspective, ideas, insights and thoughts. Declarative communication is cumulative in nature. A response to declarative language adds to what the communicative partner already knows, so it cannot be scripted.

Responses to imperative communication can be scripted and predicted. Nonverbal communication—the use of gestures, facial expressions and vocal intonation—is not important in imperative communication. Additionally, it is not dynamic in nature and may not require any further interaction beyond the response to the single sentence input.

Do recognize how declarative communication can make a dramatic difference

Declarative communication removes the pressure from a child to provide the correct answer. It also encourages children to be thinkers and to assume responsibility. Declaratives are invitations to interact and react, while questions are typically cues to provide a right answer.

Do use simple vocabulary

When making a declarative utterance, use vocabulary and sentence structures that are not too complicated for your child’s language level, including both comprehension and expression. If your child can’t understand language that is not about the immediate context, talk about the immediate context.

Do share experiences

Communicate with the intent to share experiences by making comments about the immediate environment, your feelings, prior related events or immediately upcoming events.

Do familiarize yourself with declarative utterances

The following are examples of various types of declarative utterances:

I really like playing with cars.
That car is at the top of the hill.

Today is my birthday.
I am going to try and win.

Opportunities for problem solving:
Oh no, the table is wet.
I can’t open the door.

I bet the books will fall.
There is a lot of noise in this room; I bet John did not hear you.

It was fun going to buy ice cream.
He is super fast runner

Wow! We did it.
We are the best

You can do it.
She is a really good basketball player.

We are going to the restaurant for dinner.
I would like some ice cream.

Perspective sharing:
I don’t like magazines.
Going on the rides make me feel sick.

Declarative questions:
(If you know the answer, it is not a declarative)
Do you know what I think?
Which one is your favorite?

What should we do next?
We could play dolls next.


Do not demand responses

Never demand responses from your child. Your language input should not be used to get specific information out of a child or to get a child to say what you want him/her to say. Your language input should be a moment in which you share and invite your child to share with you.

Do not overlook the need to provide opportunities for inferring information

One of the most didactic uses of declarative language is the use of language to comment on conditions in the environment, affording the child an opportunity to infer information.

Given time to respond, the child is expected to recognize the conditions stated, infer what needs to be done and finally, do it. Initially, a child may need extended time to respond to this type of declarative language. As the parent, you may have to wait as long as 25 to 45 seconds. You may have to expand the language input to further explain or spotlight the condition. For example, an initial statement may be: My arms are full. And a second statement may be: I can’t open the door.

You may need to add a visual reference to the problem, such as looking at the door and then looking at your packages. The key is that you do not tell children what to do, so they have the opportunity to think and infer information.

Do not fail to help your child

Using declarative language to foster a child’s ability to infer information can help a child in the following ways:

  • assume responsibility in the environment
  • initiate responses
  • listen to language that is not imperative in nature
  • listen to conversational language
  • respond to incidental requests
  • respond on behalf of someone else
  • become a more active participant in life

Do not underestimate the importance of patience

Have lots of patience for your children as they don’t even hear declarative language at this point, given the difference in prosody. Additionally, they are not accustomed to being required to respond by teachers, aides and parents, as they prompt children very quickly and peers tend take over for them.

Do not forget to pose problems

Pose problems through declarative statements so children can assume the responsibility to infer information in order to solve the problem.

Jumping cartoon

Declarative language encourages experience sharing. This is the essence of what communication and language use is all about.

More expert advice about Improving Family Communication

Photo Credits: Mila laughing out loud. by Boudewijn Berends via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Nancy Z. Schwartz Ph.D.Fostering a Positive Communicative Environment for All Children.

Dr. Schwartz has 30 years of experience working with children with language problems and in particular, with children who are on the Autistic Spectrum and/or have Speech Apraxia. She holds a Ph.D. in Speech, and a Masters in Communicative Diso...

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