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Language and Communication Thinking Skills

Language and Communication skills include sending a message to another person and receiving and understanding a message back. These abilities help us understand what someone is saying and to be able to follow a conversation. Language and Communication Thinking Skills help us find the words to share our thoughts, feelings, needs, and ideas. They are necessary when having a back-and-forth conversation to solve problems with others.

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, founder and director of Think:Kids, explains Language and Communication Thinking Skills, and shares examples of how when kids struggle with these skills it can lead to challenging behavior.

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Contrary to conventional wisdom, our behavior is determined by skill, not will. And one of the most important categories of skills that help us to manage our behavior is Language and Communication skills. I remember when I was fresh out of college and in my first job as a research assistant here at Massachusetts General Hospital in the Department of Psychiatry. And, I was involved in this large study looking at kids with attention deficit disorder, who were also diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder. So they displayed frequent oppositional defiant behavior in response to requests, demands, from adults in their lives. And one of the shocking findings was when we looked at what we call comorbid conditions or coexisting conditions. We found concerningly high rates of language and communication difficulties in these kids who are struggling to manage their behavior. And, you know, it's actually not a big surprise in retrospect because language and communication skills are absolutely crucial to solving problems, handling demands, tolerating frustration, and, more globally, just problem-solving.

In fact, when you look through a developmental lens, and you think about when kids are very young, say two years of age, they don't manage their behavior particularly well. And that, in fact, that's why we refer to that time in life as the terrible twos. One of the reasons, anyway. And the reason we don't call it the terrible threes or fours or fives or sixes is if development is going according to plan by the time kids are three, four, five, or six, one of the things that they start to acquire are better language and communication skills, which are absolutely crucial, both expressive and receptive language skills. If you think about expressive language, it is absolutely crucial that we have the skill, whether it's as a child or as an adult, to let somebody know what's bothering us, to be able to articulate our concern, our perspective, our point of view, if we are going to engage in any problem-solving.

And what's really interesting is before we can let somebody else know what's bothering us, we have to put our finger on what's bothering us in the first place. In other words, we have to tell ourselves—we have to figure it out. And for most of us, the way we figure out what's bothering us is by talking to ourselves. In other words, we use words. We use language to talk ourselves through things and understand what our experiences are. Now, if you actually can put your finger on what's bothering you and have the linguistic skills to be able to communicate that to someone else, you're, of course, not out of the woods because then that person is going to respond to you. And now, you must use your receptive language skills to follow what they're saying. Keep up in the conversation. And then, if you're going to do good problem-solving, it involves a pretty rapid fire back and forth exchange of thoughts and ideas that are largely delivered through language or at least other forms of communication.

Now, if somebody struggles with language and communication skills, this can look like all kinds of different things. This can look like somebody who just says, "I don't know" a lot. This can look like somebody who has long pauses before responding. I've seen many times with adolescents that I work with; this can look like a lot of four-letter words. And you really want to try to embrace the notion of being curious, not furious, when you're struggling to understand somebody else's behavior. Because if this is about skill, not will, what we want to be thinking is, what is this person having a hard time doing that if they were able to do more effectively, they'd be able to manage their behavior better? Because the reality is, kids, adults, all of us, of course, we'd prefer to be managing our behavior better in the first place.

Nobody likes to be behaving badly, which is why, as we always say, kids do well if they can, or adults do well if they can as well. So try to embrace this mindset of be curious, not furious. And one of the things with curiosity you want to be thinking about is how are this person's language and communication skills? Is this an area where they might struggle? And be careful not to act too quickly, because you know, I see many of us adults, we issue demands, requests, commands to kids, and if they don't immediately respond, we reissue the command often with a threat of a potential consequence or something like that. And having worked with a lot of kids with language and communication difficulties, maybe as simple as a slower processing speed, you realize that these kids just oftentimes need a bit more time.

So, for instance, we say something to them like, "turn off the TV and come to dinner." And if they don't turn off the TV and come to dinner in a few seconds, we then re-up the demand. "Did you hear what I said? I asked you to turn off the TV and come to dinner." Maybe with a little bit more aggravation. And the reality is that what might be going on in that kid's head is as simple as this. You say, turn off the TV and come to dinner. And they, this is what's going on in their head. They say to themselves, "okay, turn off the TV and come to dinner. Um, okay, so you want me to turn off the TV and come to dinner now? Uh, the thing is that I'm sort of in the middle of my show, and I kind of want to see how it works out." And as they're still thinking this through, using language in their head, but not particularly rapidly, we jump right in and interrupt the process.

I find it's really helpful when being curious, not furious, to inquire what's going on in a kid's head. I once worked with an adolescent who had developed a particular compensatory strategy for some delays in language processing, which is to say, as soon as somebody inquired about something that required some complex thinking and linguistic skill to express what was going on for him, he would sort of head it off at the pass immediately by saying something like, "I don't care," or worse, "I don't give a," you know what. And I remember I was working with him one time, and I was asking him about something that happened for him in his day. And before I even can finish my sentence, he says, I don't care. And I finally said to him. I said, "you know what? I just noticed that you say, 'I don't care' even before I finished. You can't possibly have had enough time to think about it. Now, if you think about it and really decide you don't care and want to let me know, you don't care, that's cool. But, I can't even tell if you really don't care or that's just something you're saying. So just let's be quiet for a little bit. I just want to ask you a question and just think about it and tell me afterward what your response is." And I bit my tongue and waited for 45 seconds to give him time to think, which may not seem that long, but trust me, in practice, it's like an eternity. And after 45 seconds, I asked him what his thoughts were, and he actually had some thoughts. So it wasn't just that he didn't care. And when I asked him then why he says, "I don't care," he said to me, "well, because most people aren't going to gimme time to think about this. So you know what, I might as well get the whole thing over to begin with."

So moral of the story when somebody is struggling to manage their behavior, it's about skill, not will. We have 50 years of research in the neurosciences that have shown us that those skills tend to fall into several different domains of what we call neurocognitive or thinking skills. And one major domain is language and communication skills. And I'm not just talking about kids, I'm talking about us adults as well. So when somebody is struggling to manage their behavior, be curious, not furious. This may be a struggle with language and communication skills.

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