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Using Everyday Moments to Aid Social Learning

For kids with Fragile X, understanding social situations can be challenging. Here is one way to improve kids ability to read and understand social situations that you can do with your child at home and doesn't require trekking across the city to appointments each week.

Can you get your shoes on?

Can you get your shoes on please?

Shoes and sock on guys!

Your shoes are at the door- put them on.

It's time to go to school- can you please put your shoes and socks ON!

Does this sound familiar? You are running late and want your child to get ready for school, but it seems they have lost the capacity to hear you. You ask politely. You give them the benefit of the doubt and ask again. After the twenty-seventh time (or earlier if you are me), you start getting frustrated and raising your voice. Your child with FXS, who is very sensitive to noise and perceived conflict or negative emotions, gets upset. There are tears as you finally shut the door behind you- and they are not just coming from your child!

Everyday routines can be very grinding on parents of kids with additional needs or emotional challenges. What if there were a way to reduce the stress associated with these and build your child's ability to reason and read social situations?

Enter declarative language. I know this sounds technical, but it's not. I want to explain two types of language today and how we can use them to help our kids:

1. Declarative language is simply a comment or statement, usually one that makes an observation about what is happening in the environment.

2. Imperative language is a question or a statement that demands a response.

Examples of Declarative language include:

The kids are getting ready to go into school.

It's time to get ready to go out.

Oh look! Grandma's here.

Hey! We have the same colour shirt- I like green too!

Examples of Imperative language include:

Go and line up with the other kids.

Get your socks and shoes on

Say hello to Grandma/ Look her in the eye.

What colour is your shirt?

Responses to imperative language are correct or incorrect. But for our kids, we have to understand that this kind of language that demands a particular response can put a lot of pressure on our kids (and don't kids with FXS hate pressure!), which can then trigger their fight, flight or freeze response.

This response can manifest in swearing or kicking (fight response), crawling under the table, saying 'no' (flight response) or not answering, ignoring the person or putting their head down (freeze response).

By doing a simple switch to declarative language in these types of situations we can:

  • take the pressure off our kids by not placing demands on them to respond a certain way

  • stay emotionally connected to our kid and maintain emotional warmth

  • free them to respond in other appropriate ways to our observations

  • encourage them to 'socially reference' the situation by looking around to work out what an appropriate response might be. Using this approach also helps build natural eye contact as the child needs to look at others to work out their next step

  • problem solve social situations from contextual clues where they are wanting to respond but we would typically jump in and tell them what the appropriate thing to do is

  • empower them to feel competent at making their own decisions

  • build self-awareness and understand the world better.

Here are some other swaps you can use to increase the amount of declarative language you use with your child:

  • Instead of: 'Look at me', consider 'I'm worried you might miss something important is you don't look'

  • Instead of: 'What did I say?', consider 'I'm wondering if you heard what I said.'

  • Instead of: 'Get off the couch!', consider 'I can see you have muddy shoes', or, 'I can see you have muddy shoes and you're sitting on the couch'

  • Instead of: 'Go and play with the other kids', consider 'I wonder what they other kids are doing', or, 'I can see the other kids playing in the sandpit. Wow, it looks like one of them has a dumper truck!'

  • Instead of: 'You miss-spelt 'car', or, 'Car is spelt c-a-r', consider waiting to see if your child discovers this on their own, then if not 'It might be a good idea to check spelling word number 2', or, 'I think this word has an 'a' in it'

Making observations and then waiting for your child to figure it out themselves is an excellent way to build their confidence. You can also normalise mistakes, feelings, or solving problems by demystifying your own internal language that helps you get through each day.

Saying thoughts out loud like: 'Oh man, I spilled the water, oh well! I'll get a cloth and clean it up', 'I'm feeling so frustrated there isn't any food left for dinner, but I can handle it. I'll ask Dad to pick some up on the way home', or 'Hmm.. I can't find your library books. What can I do? Maybe I'll write a note to your teacher explaining and find them on the weekend'. This type of commentary can really help your child to see how you work through things and help them build the skills to respond with the same flexibility.

Final tip: if you find yourself wanting to use imperative language a lot, for example, asking lots of questions, try substituting the first word of your question with 'I wonder if...'.

For example:

  • Does the dog need feeding? becomes I wonder if the dog is hungry

  • Can you brush your teeth? becomes I wonder if it's time to brush your teeth

  • Can you sit up for dinner? becomes I wonder if it's time to sit up for dinner

Experiment with declarative language and be surprised about how intuitive your child can be! Please note, of course imperative language is necessary in safety situations (for example if you child is running onto the road you wouldn't say 'I wonder if there's a car coming' (!). But where practical, adding declarative language to your speech can really calm your household and improve your child's social learning.


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