As a speech and language pathologist, I worked with many young children at social risk. That is to say, their home environments often included challenges (such as poverty, limited parental education, depression, family conflict, and lack of a father figure). These challenges put them at risk for limited development of communication skills and also made it more likely that they would have behavior problems.
I noted that as I worked with children to improve communication skills, often their behavior in the classroom would improve. There appeared to be a relationship between their ability to express themselves and their ability to successfully negotiate classroom challenges without acting out or withdrawing. I decided to find out whether my clinical impression would be confirmed by a controlled research study. I predicted that I would find an inverse relationship between expressive language skills and behavior problems. In other words, children with strong language skills would have fewer behavior problems than children with weak language skills.
As part of my doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota, I recruited 60 children between the ages of 3 and 5 from four different preschool programs for low income families. Research assistants and I tested the children’s expressive language skills. In order to measure their behavior, we filmed each child during both structured and unstructured activities in their classroom and computed the percentage of teacher directions that they followed. Teachers also completed a standardized behavior problem rating scale for each of the children.
My research confirmed my experiences working as a speech and language pathologist. Controlling for the program attended as well as nonverbal intelligence scores, the children’s expressive language skills were able to predict their behavior, both as measured by teacher ratings as well as compliance with teacher directions. There was an inverse relationship between expressive language skills and behavior problems. Children with strong language skills had fewer behavior problems than children with weak language skills.
|Children with behavior problem ratings that were clinically significant who had expressive language skills that were below their age mean.|
Furthermore, 90% of the children with behavior problem ratings that were clinically significant had expressive language skills that were below their age mean. Only one child out of 12 had an expressive language score that was above age mean.
These findings signal a wonderful opportunity to prevent and address behavior problems. Despite facing an increased probability of developing behavior problems, young children at social risk may avoid this pitfall by developing strong communication skills. And we as parents and educators can help them by increasing our use of evidence-based language facilitation techniques. These techniques can be learned and practiced until they are used readily and automatically.