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Sep 29

ADHD and Language


Children with ADHD often have trouble communicating. These problems may be caused by difficulty with:

pragmatic language skills
basic language skills
higher-level language skills
Pragmatic language weaknesses
“Pragmatic language” refers to how we use language in everyday conversation. This includes the ability to:

plan what to say
plan when to say it
plan how to get the message across
respect the rules of taking turns
Children with ADHD may have difficulty with these skills. This is because communication requires executive function skills: the ability to create a plan, carry out the plan, and evaluate how well the plan worked. Executive function skills are often weak in children with ADHD. As a result, they may:

blurt things out
interrupt others
talk too much at the wrong time
speak for a long time, but with pauses that are too short for the child to organize his thoughts or to let others take a turn
speak too loudly
miscommunicate what they mean or misunderstand what others are saying
Parents and teachers may think of these as behaviour problems. However, these communication breakdowns can affect children’s social interactions. Children with ADHD might have difficulties communicating with friends, teachers, and parents.

Basic language weaknesses
Many children with ADHD also have problems with basic language skills, including:

age-appropriate vocabulary
grammar and syntax
In turn, these children will struggle with oral language and reading. This may also create difficulties for written expression.

Higher-level language weaknesses
We use “higher-level” language functions to understand and produce long, complex passages of spoken or written language. These functions rely heavily on working memory skills. As a result, children with ADHD often have trouble with them. They may have difficulty communicating their ideas to others.

Research has found that children with ADHD perform badly on many higher-level language tasks, including:

finding mistakes in instructions
making judgments about how easily they understand something
understanding information in science textbooks
understanding cause-and-effect relationships in stories
understanding why characters in stories are doing something
re-telling a story in their own words so that it makes sense
talking about their ideas in more detail
making clear explanations on request
answering questions concisely using specific vocabulary
As children enter higher grades and start doing more complex work, these weaknesses cause more problems.

Helping children with ADHD and language problems
Children may need support systems to help them:

understand complex written information
write coherent book reports or other texts
In the classroom, the following strategies may help children with ADHD and language problems:

Give one direction at a time.
Make directions clear, brief, and specific.
Chunk (use short sentences) and repeat the important parts of long explanations and instructions.
Demonstrate what is to be done and walk through the steps.
Provide visual supports for instructions, such as a checklist.
Always check to make sure the student understands instructions.
Give frequent and specific feedback.
These strategies are discussed in detail on the TeachADHD web site.
Tara McAuley, PhD, CPsych
Peter Chaban, MA, MEd
Rosemary Tannock, PhD

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