© David Sponder, L.E.P., BCBA, Floortime C3c
Executive Director, Sponderworks Children’s Services

Differences in Learning Styles between “Experience-Sharing” Children and Children that are Dependent upon Questions and Prompting or Need in order to Communicate.

When people talk and relate to each other in a relaxed social context, the vast majority of what they say describes or “shares” their subjective experience:

  • what they sense: (what they hear, see, feel, smell, taste, etc.)
  • what events mean to them or to others (opinions)
  • thoughts, ideas, suggestions
  • feedback: comments, criticism, encouragement, praise
  • social news
  • sharing who knows and doesn’t know information
  • recollections of the past and anticipations of the future
  • speculations and declarations of people’s intentions

The above is certainly a non-exhaustive list. The point is that when relating and communicating, it is normal for people to report their sensory and their emotional experiences freely and frequently.

  • Normal conversations are usually and mostly “declarative” (meaning that people “declare” what they experience), with occasional questions, requests for clarification, or even prompts (e.g., “No, I need you to tell me about…” “You can tell me if you want to…”).
  • Task oriented conversations tend to have more “imperative” content. There will be more in the way of directions, prompts, questions asked and answered, etc. that is endemic to the task. With the exception of the most impersonal contexts (e.g., Driver↔ Toll Booth Operator), there is usually some social sharing (“Busy today huh?” “Do you smell that? Better check the oven.”).

Declarative language is the language used for experience sharing, whereas imperative forms of language are used mainly for task or goal-oriented conversations.

Typically developing individuals use predominantly declarative, experience-sharing communication in social contexts. They use it primarily in spontaneous social interaction that does not follow any particular agenda. In such conversation, there is a minimum of questioning or requesting people to speak. Too much imperative language can be experienced by the parties as coercive.

Typically developing individuals use the necessary amount of imperative communications (requests, commands, demands, information transfer [facts]), but their communication is almost never completely imperative. Typically developing individuals want to share their experience (opinions for example) even during task or goal oriented conversation.

In contrast, individuals with disorders of relating and communicating use imperative language predominantly. They may show considerable repertoires of vocabulary and the ability to speak in sentences. But to some mild or perhaps intensive degree, these individuals will show marked deficits at some level or another. The most severely impacted may have trouble initiating even the simplest imperatives (e.g., requests and protests), whereas mildly impacted individuals may have trouble understanding how other people feel, showing their deficits also in the lack of experience-sharing curiosity (hence, the restricted range of interests characteristic of Autism Spectrum disorders).

In typical development, infants and toddlers readily share their experience. By 6 months, children look at their Mother’s face practically every time they encounter something new or unusual (social referencing; emotional referencing). They develop a range of gestures they can use to elaborate their experience, such as point, showing, lifting up objects, or behaving in a certain way.

When we look at the continuum of early communication and relationship development starting from the simple face to face gazing of newborns through the development of language and reasoning, we can see that children use words (verbal communication) as a new tool for experience-sharing. Their motivation to acquire vocabulary and language skills comes from their desire to be as clear as they can to others – to be able to share their experience without restrictions.

We see this trajectory continue through the life-span, as more tools become available: the ability to tell stories, use written language, illustrate through actions or drawings or toy representations, and now – electronic communication and video, etc.

Two Conversations

Mom and her 5-year-old son, Leo. Leo is already an old pro at sharing his experience. He has been doing it since he was an infant – long before he learned to talk. Talking just added another tool to his “experience-sharing” toolbox…

Mom: “How was school today?”
Leo: “Good.”
Mom: “C’mon Leo. How was it – really?”
Leo: “We had to come in from recess early and watch a boring movie that we saw a million times already. They said there was thunder, but it didn’t even rain.”

Leo: “Can we go to the park this afternoon?”
Mom: “You have been inside all day. Hmmm. I wonder if we…”
Leo: “I already did my homework!”

Mom: “OK, in that case, let’s squeeze in a little time before we have to pick up Lisa.”

Leo needs very little incentive to open up. Mom doesn’t have to work hard, or cue Leo in a special way in order to get him to talk. This is because Leo – at the tender age of 5, is a life-long expert at sharing his experience. You can also hear in this conversation, that Leo has an idea of how his mother thinks and what he needs to say to persuade her.

Now listen to a “conversation” between Mom and her 5-year-old son, Jr.  Jr. has moderate Autism.

Mom: “Honey, how was your day at school?”
Jr.: “Good.”
Mom: “What did you do?”
Jr.: “We did our work. Then we had snack. Then I went out to play.” (Junior says this every day. It’s a script. It often does not coincide with what really happened).
Mom: “Tell me more about recess. Did you have a good time?”
Jr.: “I had a good time at recess. I went on the swings.”

In this daily conversation routine, Jr. is obliging, but he never volunteers conversation about any of his experiences. This conversation is not inherently satisfying to either party, but Mom is pleased that Jr. has learned to speak. He now makes his needs regularly known to Caregivers and is learning how to answer “Wh’” questions. Unfortunately, if adults don’t know the right questions to ask, Jr. cannot tell them what they want to know, even if the event happened 5 minutes ago.

Jr. has obvious difficulty with, or little motivation to really relate with his communication. Mom gets what I call, “The titles without the story.” There is speech and language, but no real communicating or relating (“experience-sharing”). Mom feels she has to pull the information out of Jr. through interrogation.  (“It’s like pulling teeth!” is a common complaint that we hear). Mom doesn’t like to have to interrogate, but it is so hard to get any voluntary information from Jr. He speaks mainly when he needs something, doesn’t like something, or wants to recite the endless facts he knows about dinosaurs.

Jr.’s Mom very badly wants him to relate. She feels – she knows, that there is more inside of him that he cannot or just will not share, but she doesn’t know how to get out of the trap of asking questions and prompting Jr. to speak.  When she doesn’t ask or prompt, Jr. speaks only when he needs something, or when he goes on about the same facts over and over about dinosaurs. Even then, Mom gets the feeling that he goes on about dinosaurs just to hear himself speak. That’s his favorite thing in the world, and he’s not really relating.

Declarative Language Stimulation Models and Promotes Experience-Sharing and Higher Quality Relating

When you use statements rather than questions or directions with children, you find that they listen and talk more than they do than when you ask them questions or prompt them to speak. Making comments and statements (declarations) encourages children to speak not only their needs but their experience and point of view as well.

Experience-sharing children rely on being questioned or prompted much less than children with disorders of relating and communicating do. Both experience sharing children and non-experience sharing children tend to relate more and with more quality and subjective content when parents emphasize declarative over imperative language. (For an excellent and easily accessible book on this is, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish).

Declaratives” are statements or comments that you make that don’t necessarily require a response, but end up making a robust response from others more likely. Declaratives are comments you make, expressing what you see, hear, feel, etc.  You will find that most people will respond with their own observations and opinions – perhaps arguments – but they will talk. You want more than simple answers. You want detail, elaboration – a story about episodes in their lives. What you want is for your child not to just share facts or give you answers – you want them to share their [subjective] experience.  You want “experience-sharing language.”

By using declarative language to express yourself, you encourage and model (this is very important) the same.

Declarative language is the language of experience-sharing

  • Sharing beliefs, viewpoints, information, gossip, wishes, regrets, feelings – usually as statements from a personal point of view
    • Objective Observations or Statements (“the bottle is full” “there are toys all over the floor” “It’s Tuesday. You have speech in the morning.” “I ran into your friend Oscar this morning.” “Sarah told me that…”)
    • Subjective Observations or Declarations of your intent or your experience (“I like the chocolate one’s best” “That music is loud” “You look sad” “Those shoes are too big” “I’d like to go to the park”)
 Imperative Language

On the contrary, “imperatives” (imperative forms and functions of language) by their nature require responding… Because of this, they can feel coercive if overused.

  • Giving and following directions
  • Asking or answering questions
  • Asking for or giving factual information
  • Mands: (Requests for action)
    • demands, including requests, protests
    • commands, including prompting, rule-giving, rule-citing, etc., when given as an expectation for action)
    • reprimands

Greta and her class just finished reading their language arts story. The theme of the story was “an embarrassing moment.” She asked the class openly, “Have any of you ever had an embarrassing moment?” Rarely were Greta’s Students so silent. Obviously, the imperative question produced a less than robust response from the class.

Greta then tried, “OK, I’ll tell you one of mine. I was looking at my phone and walking at the same time in the mall and I ran into a pole. ” [Student 1] “That happened to My Dad. My Mom says my Dad is addicted to email.” (Student 2] “Does he do it in the car? You’re supposed to pull over. My Mom says she hates seeing driver’s texting.” [Student 1] My Dad says he only does it at stoplights, but sometimes he tries to finish it, and then he drives like 2 miles an hour while he’s doing it. You can see people making faces at him.” Class: “Ooooh.”

By starting the conversation by sharing an experience, the children were naturally motivated to chime in. Greta found that starting class conversations with an anecdote, a personal experience or an observation reliably produced a robust response from the class, and that when she forget and went back her old habits of starting with a question – she also found that the Students still shared, but less so. After many instances of starting with declarations, the culture of her classroom changed and kids shared more readily – even when Greta occasionally with a question or a directive (e.g., “Describe a time when you felt embarrassed”).

Using More Declarative Language Promotes Natural and Frequent Initiation of Relating and Communicating

Children pick up and use more declarative language with declarative language stimulation, which results in their sharing and elaborating more. This is vital in the teaching of children that have difficulty sharing their experience through purposeful communication.

Speaking mostly in “declaratives” is difficult for parents to do at first, especially if they’ve become accustomed to questioning and probing a child who doesn’t know how to or doesn’t want to elaborate.

We have to realize that adults compensate for a child’s lack of sharing, commenting, elaborating etc. by asking them questions.

But asking a question only requires a single response. If the child does not elaborate on his response, the compensating adult usually has to ask another question.

It is more natural to model things to say. You toss out a comment and pause, and see if the child has anything to add.  The “pause” is an open space for the child to fill in with his own thoughts.

The declarative language is more difficult for me. I do try not to ask too many questions but that results in me talking much less altogether.”

The easiest thing to remember is to comment on something going on in the here-and-now. Events in the present do not require memory, but they do require joint attention. So what you try to do is to pay attention to where your child is looking  or to what he is doing and then comment on that.

The stimulus to go on more is the deliberate pause you make right after you make a comment.  This is a natural cue for the child to add something.

So here are some examples of how you can change what you say from an imperative to a declarative – and probably achieve better results:

Imperative Version

Declarative Version

 Replacing Directions and Prompts

Clean up your room The room is messy
Turn down the TV Wow that’s loud
Time to do your homework You seem to be avoiding the homework
You need to get back to work  ooks a little frustrating


Replacing Questions and Probes

Which one is your favorite?  My favorite is….
What did you do in school today? Today is Thursday.
That’s music day right?  Last week you guys got to play drums.
What are you drawing? Looks like a mountain right there.
 Is that [math problem] hard?  Do you want help?Say, “Help please” That looks hard.

Declarative comments can be as simple as “Wow” or “Cool” or “Yuck!” They can be groans or sounds of delight. It is that pause that provides the incentive to speak.  Also, by doing this a lot, you model for him things that he can say at a later time.

Another, fun way of getting a child to initiate conversation or elaborate further is to say silly and absurd things – and then look at him coyly. This spurs him to correct you and to add some of his own information.


Mom:            Jack, time to get dressed.
Jack:             [no response]
Mom:            Here’s your shoes.
Jack:             Those aren’t my shoes – they’re Daddy’s shoes.
Mom:            Really?
Jack:             Those are my shoes.
Mom:            They look the same to me.
Jack:             Nooooo.  Daddy’s shoes are too big.  You’re being silly.
Mom:            Yeah – I know.   Here, try these.
Jack:             Nooooo.  Those are your shoes.
Mom:            Oh yeah?
Jack:             Those are girl shoes.  I can’t wear girl shoes.
Mom:            Oh no?
Jack:             No. I’m a boy.  I wear boy shoes.
Mom:            But you’re not wearing any shoes at all.
Jack:             I know.  [I] have to put them on.

This is just an example of getting one kid to talk more than he normally would have in this very mundane routine. Using absurdity stimulated him think and to talk.

See if you can make comments in place of directions or questions, and see if you can get the same or better results from your child. It can feel weird at first and it can be kind of difficult – but once you get the hang of it – you find it’s pretty easy and natural (after all – it is how you speak with mostly everyone else). You will probably find that the child ends up being more talkative – offering whatever comments and opinions they are capable of communicating.

The goal of course, is to always increase this capacity, but the main point is that teaching a person to share and describe and comment is best done by modeling, giving them time to think and to formulate a response. Asking questions, prompting to speak and other forms of imperative language stimulation usually end up in communicative dead ends and is a tool that should be used sparingly (it’s almost impossible to get through a conversation using only declaratives).

Important Steps and Considerations when using Declarative Language Stimulation:

  • In the beginning stages, you will likely have to initiate the conversation. You will eventually be able to “share” the role of initiating conversation as your child learns how to speak declaratively
  • Rely mainly on statements, comments, recollections, etc. when initiating conversation.
    • Talk about what you see [hear, smell, taste, feel...], think, believe, etc. (Sensory)
  • Start by keeping conversation in the here-and-now. This is a very important support for children that have difficulty relating from recollection. Events in the here-and-now have immediate sensory characteristics and actions to stimulate conversation.
    • You will more than likely find that conversations about what goes on in the present are easier than those that require the child to remember an event or imagine one in the future.
  • Use statements that are short enough for your child to imitate
    • Accompany your comments and statements with pointing and gestures; slow down your movement so the facial, postural and body language gestures have time to sink in
  • When using declaratives, resist the urge to prompt a response. WAIT instead (see Therapeutic Pause technique).
    • If you feel a need to prompt (the silence looks like it will not lead to a response), you can make another comment. Look at where your child is looking and what she is doing for clues as to what comments you can make that will motivate a response
  • Sometimes, being wrong on purpose or saying something silly or absurd gets the child to correct you. This promotes her sharing of the reasons why you are wrong or silly. This is a technique that is best used judiciously rather than regularly to maintain it’s power and to not confuse the child.
  • Questions are OK, but they should never dominate the conversation. Use questions to clarify rather than ask for basic information. You can also avoid questions by rephrasing them as statements. For instance, instead of saying, “Where did you go with Michael?” you can rephrase the question as a statement, “But I don’t know where you guys went.” (This draws attention to an important reference point – the fact that you don’t know. Children with difficulties understanding the mental states and intentions of others [Theory of Mind] do not use other people’s knowledge states as reference points for their thinking and communicating. By making statements about what you don’t know, you encourage your child to think about your knowledge state and to use it as a reference point that guides further relating.

Declarative Actions

Using Declarative Language to Elicit Cooperative Behavior