We know oral language is young children’s door into the world of knowledge and ideas, the foundation for reading, and the bedrock of all academic learning. But, can language also protect young kids against behavioral problems?
A number of studies have identified a co-occurrence of language delays and behavioral maladjustment, an association that remains after controlling for socio-demographic characteristics and academic achievement (here and here). However, most research on the issue has been cross-sectional and correlational making it hard to establish whether behavioral issues cause language delays, language delays cause behavioral issues, or another factor is responsible for both.
A recent paper by Marc Bornstein, Chun-Shin Hahn, and Joan Suwalsky (2013) was able to shed some light on these questions concluding that “language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay.” This is important given the fact that minority children raised in poverty tend to have smaller than average vocabularies and are also overrepresented in pre-K expulsions and suspensions.
Bornstein, Hahn, and Suwalsky examined several competing explanations using path analysis, a statistical method used to determine whether or not a data set fits well with a previously specified causal model. Path analysis is not intended to prove a causal relationship (although it can disprove one), but it illuminates chains of influence (or the sequence in which several dependent variables may shape a dependent measure).
The study analyzed two longitudinal cohorts of children looking at developmental pathways between children’s language skills and their behavioral adjustment in terms of internalizing (e.g., withdrawal, anxiety, self-consciousness, shyness) and externalizing (e.g., defiance, impulsivity, disruptiveness, aggression) behavior problems. The authors found strong evidence that weak early childhood language skills can predict later internalizing behavior problems.
The general cascading pattern observed in both cohorts indicated that language proficiency in early childhood affected behavioral adjustment in late childhood, which in turn contributed to behavioral adjustment in early adolescence. Framed in the positive, young children who are more competent verbally have fewer internalizing behavior problems later.
Links between language skills and behavior issues were documented, even after controlling for broad individual and family characteristics (i.e. poverty, nonverbal intelligence, aspects of mothers’ and children’s environments).
Importantly, “internalizing and externalizing behavior problems never predicted language.” The latter is interesting because we often talk about how children’s social-emotional development prepares them to be “ready to learn.” These findings, however, suggest that learning itself – i.e., oral language development – helps to strengthen young children’s socio-emotional development.
“But what is it about language that keeps some behavioral adjustment problems at bay?” – the authors ask.
Language is multidimensional, with receptive and expressive phonological, semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic components. We do not know exactly which language competencies or what about language competencies in early childhood keep behavioral adjustment problems at bay. This is a question for future research.
Finally, some of the study’s limitations: (1) a small sample size; (2) some generalizability concerns due to the characteristics of the sample and; (3) the possibility that relevant child characteristics (such as temperament) were not considered by the models.
The study is important because it suggests that “programs aimed at improving child language may also promote their psychological wellbeing” and that “an early focus on language may therefore yield a high return on investment in strategically timed and targeted interventions designed to ameliorate or obviate behavioral problems.”
- Esther Quintero