Conjunctions simply stated are set of words used to connect ideas and clauses.
Examples: and, but, if, so that, because
Easy as they sound for adults, they can be difficult for our children with pragmatics skills difficulties to fully understand some of the meanings of them.
In order to fully understand the functions of conjunctions, a child needs to have sufficient meta-linguistic, meta-cognitive skills and Theory of Mind (TOM).
Meta-linguistic (ML) skills : Having the understanding and awareness to think about language and how they’re used.
Meta-linguistic skills develop over time. Some of the early meta-linguistic skills that preschoolers/kindergarteners master include phonemic awareness – understanding that words in sound can be manipulated. (E.g., understanding that “bat”, “cat” rhyme with “sat”, substituting “e” for “a” in “pat” would change an action to an animal “pet”.
Other meta-linguistic skills include understanding that words have multiple meanings, and understanding that idioms are figurative language of which the sum of words do not literally represent the exact meaning of the phrase. 1
Meta-cognitive (MC) skills : Being aware of your own thinking and being able to analyze yours and others’ thoughts.
When a child starts to use meta-cognitive words such as “know, can, must, remember, think…” you know that they’re thinking, evaluating, recalling thoughts. Typical developing children start developing these skills around 3+. Example of meta-cognitive sentences that my 3.5 year students produce are “I must finish this now “, “maybe later”.
Our kids with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorders’ may have meta-cognitive and meta-linguistic skills that are delayed or acquired at a later age. Some of these skills may not be fully mastered when they reach adulthood. For some children with more severe social pragmatic skills or lower verbal knowledge, language functions may be restricted to requesting of the here and nows and use of certain labels (e.g., I want X, The cat is orange) even when they reach adult-age. Some may have superior meta-linguistic skills: being able to understand and explain morphological and grammatical rules far superior than their peers, but struggle to fully gauge the pragmatics and semantics of certain words (e.g., words have different meanings depending on the context used, or certain words should not be used in certain situations).
Language skills, especially writing, relies heavily on executive function skills (e.g., ability to focus, plan, organize, prioritize, revise, etc). Interesting point to note: Research shows that executive function skills may not be fully acquired by adults until mid-20s or 30s. For more info about executive functioning, refer to Dr. Peg Dawson’s works.
Theory of Mind (TOM): Theory of Mind is the ability to tune in to other people’s feelings and thoughts, understand that people have hidden desires, expectations and beliefs. Theory of mind overlaps with metacognitive and metalinguistic skills. In my experience, some of my students who struggle with theory of mind may possess great verbal knowledge/ meta-metalinguistic skills but struggle to refer to others’ perspectives.
Why are these skills needed to fully understand certain conjunctions?
While some of our kids with pragmatics issue may learn to memorize a set of conjunctions and their correlations, they may struggle to understand their functions fully because of their decreased ML, MC and TOM.
For instance, in order to fully understand how to use because, a child needs to be aware that he and others has intentions and motives that cause him to act or respond a certain way. They may respond to their own internal drives (e.g., grabbing cookies from a jar because they’re hungry), but may not be able to evaluate that intentions cause them to act a certain way or be able to fully explain why they’re acting a certain way (e.g., explaining to others that “I took the cookie because I was hungry”, or “Johny pushed his friends because he wanted to be first in line).
A child who struggle with TOM may be able to tie the conjunction “because” to explain certain concrete adjectives (e.g., “I like Flamingo because it’s pink/cute”) but may not be able to explain the reason why his/her teacher was mad at him/her because he/she failed to fulfil the teacher’s expectations (e.g., Ms A was upset at me because I didn’t complete all my homework before leaving my seat). Understanding that others’ have expectations about them taps into TOM skills. Hence, to ask some of our children to combine two ideas on certain context (others/I feel (emotions) + because + expectations met/not met) may be beyond them if they haven’t yet fully understood that others have expectations on them.
Before you start teaching your child to use “because” to explain a cause for particular emotions, desires or intentions you need to make sure your child understand the different shades of these emotions/intentions. “Surprise” for instance may be one difficult emotion to grasp for some, because it involves the understanding that something happened against one’s expectations. A student may understand that feelings of happiness or excited is associated with desires being met (“I’m happy to get a present), or map “surprise” with cakes at birthday parties, but may fail to recognize that his mother was surprised at an uninvited guest. 2
A child may learn to use and to connect words of similar categories (e.g., I like “blue”, “pink”, and “yellow) but may have difficulty understanding that two different actions conducted by the same person can be combined using and (e.g., “dad went to the shop and bought some bread).
A child highly literal child may learn to use the conjunction but to connect adjectives that have opposite meanings (e.g., This boy is tall, but that boy is short) , but may not fully understand (at that learning stage) how to use “but” to express different options/preferences or to state the unexpected. (e.g., I want to go home, but I can’t; I want to go outside but it’s raining, I like chocolate, but only the white ones).
While using the conjunctions of time “first, then” may be easy for a child to sequence his steps, using if to state a condition or hypothetical situation (e.g., If you didn’t finish your homework, you won’t get a cookie -> double negatives and hypothetical conditions), may be tricky as it taps into the use of higher meta-cognitive skills to evaluate a situation. 2
Children learn best when the demands are within their zones of proximal development (mastering a skill by themselves with some adult scaffolding/help, not maximal adult support + maximal struggle from child) and adapting a child’s with learning needs curriculum requires much educated consideration on the teachers’ end and much understanding from parents to adjust their expectations.
“celebrate the progress that your child can make within his/her capacity, don’t keep comparing your child’s performance to his/her year’s curriculum”
- Theory of Mind Atlas by Drs. Tiffany L. Hutchins and Patricia A. Prelock (check out their work here! )