Building Language Skills: Pragmatics in School Aged Children & Adolescents

Communication is essential for everyday interactions. Individuals share information, ask questions, and develop connections with others at school, work, home, and in the community. Relationships and friendships are vital for a meaningful life. Therefore, it is important to build one’s pragmatic or social use of language. By enhancing these skills, children and teens will be able to form connections with other people from friendships to professional endeavors. Children and teenagers with language impairment, learning disability, and/or autism oftentimes do not have the linguistic skills necessary for effective communication. This may lead to social anxiety, limited social interactions, or difficulties in pragmatics. Socialization is important for one’s future career. For instance, with good pragmatics, a person can ace a job interview or conduct a thorough meeting with ease. A speech language pathologist can guide a child and adolescent to develop social language skills such as turn taking, initiating communication, maintaining topic of conversation, asking questions, processing emotions, displaying gestures, greeting people, talking to people appropriately across settings, etc.

Pragmatic Language Skills in Conversation Involves:

1. Social Greetings

When greeting a person, we use language differently than stating a demand. For example, someone greets a person by saying, “Hello, how are you?” A demand may look like this: “Take out the garbage, please.”

Make sure your child understands these conversational cues. Using a script can help your child understand the different uses in language.

2. Adjusting language based on the social situation or person in the conversation

If children are speaking with their friends, they typically may have their own language with them. However, it is important to teach children and teenagers to have respect when speaking with adults – using a different tone, higher vocabulary, politeness, etc.

If someone is visibly upset, it is important for the child or teenager to process emotions for any person. Perhaps, the child can ask the person, “What’s wrong?” or “What happened?” to their friends, family, and co-workers.

Practice this step with your child by using social stories to help your child to develop good functional communication skills and respect. In addition, friendly jokes and non-literal language can be introduced to your child to develop a better understanding of language.

3.Following the pragmatic rules of conversation

It is important for a child to practice his or her listening skills when engaging with others in a conversation. This means that a child cannot dominate or interrupt the conversation with his or her sole interests. In addition, practicing eye contact and kind facial expressions will help the child listen to one’s conversation. Also, it is important for the child to contribute to a conversation as well while staying on topic using relevant vocabulary. Practice these skills with your child by playing a game with turn taking or introducing new people to your child, so that he or she can develop his or her conversational skills. Remember, make your child feel safe that he or she can ask questions.

Clinicians may show videos of hypothetical age level social scenarios in conversations. Then, they can strategically provide intervention breaking down key pragmatic language elements. Next, speech/language pathologists and parents may role play conversations with children to build essential pragmatic language skills.

For speech/language pathologists, it is important to distinguish between Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder and Pragmatic Language deficits. This differential diagnosis may be difficult because many behaviors and symptoms overlap between Autism Spectrum Disorder and Social Communication Disorder. Did you know that Social Communication Disorder is a new diagnosis in the DSM-5?  Individuals who have significant problems with verbal and nonverbal communication for social purposes that are not autistic or have low cognitive ability may have SCD. Characteristics must be present in early childhood and often contributes to difficulties with social relationships, academic achievement, or occupational performance. SCD can occur alongside other developmental issues such as language impairment, learning disability, speech sound disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Speech language pathologists may review the details from APA here to adequately differentiate between Social Communication Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD):

Speech language pathologists often refer to the term Pragmatic Language Disorder in the school and private practice settings. This is a key language impairment for autistic children and adolescents. These individuals have difficulty with understanding the perspective of others, asking relevant questions, participating effectively in conversation with preferred and nonpreferred topics, and the three main areas outlined above.

Additionally, it is important to consider cultural differences with social use of language such as eye contact, initiating communication, and maintaining conversations. After considering sociocultural factors, clinicians may confirm that a disorder exists when pragmatic impairment occurs that are atypical for individuals from a similar linguistic and cultural background. It is always important to confirm language disorder vs. language difference.