Poor Early Language Skills May Be Linked to Kids’ Behavior Problems

NIH-funded study suggests internal monologue helps kids control impulses

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Indiana University researcher Isaac Petersen plays a puppet game with a toddler as part of a study on language skills. (Photo courtesy of Indiana University.)


Meredith Carlson Daly: Anyone who deals with young children knows that kids act up—and act out—from time to time. But some kids have more trouble than others when it comes to controlling their impulses. Now researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have uncovered an important clue to the thought processes underlying some children’s persistent problem behavior. Indiana University researchers report that poor language skills may be linked to behavioral outbursts. Their research suggests that young children have a running internal monologue that helps them guide their behavior and their actions. However, children with poor language skills lack this internal voice, an important tool for controlling their impulses, particularly in difficult situations.


From the National Institutes of Health, I’m Meredith Carlson Daly, and this is “Research Developments”, a podcast from the NIH Eunice Kennedy Shriver Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Joining us is Isaac Petersen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Indiana, and lead author of the study. Mr. Petersen, thank you so much for joining us.

Isaac Petersen: Thank you for having me, Meredith.

Ms. Daly: Can you tell us what you set out to learn in this study?

Mr. Petersen: Yes. So we see in our parent-child clinic, we see many children with language difficulties. And we wanted to know what role language plays in the development of behavior problems for some of these children. And many prior studies have shown that language difficulties are related to behavior problems for some kids. So we were interested in what that process is. Why is language important for the development of behavior problems? And in a study that we published last year, we showed that children who have language difficulties are more likely to develop later behavior problems than behavior problems predicting later language difficulties. So the arrow, the direction, appears to be from language difficulties to later behavior problems, rather than the reverse. And it also showed that the process did not appear to be explained by another process. So we accounted for things like gender and intelligence and working memory and socioeconomic status. So it does appear that language is special. But the next question was—is why. What specific role does language play? And that’s where this study came in. And what we found was that language may play a role in the development of behavior problems, because language is a tool that children can use to help them guide their behavior and control their behavior, especially in difficult situations. And therefore, that kids with language difficulties may be in turn more likely to develop later behavior problems.

Ms. Daly: So in the study, you describe how children are unable to self-regulate their behavior. Could you define self-regulation and talk a little about how you measured this?

Mr. Petersen: That’s a great question. Self-regulation is a very broad construct. It involves many different domains. So it involves the ability to control and regulate your attention to be able to effortfully attend to things in your environment. But it also involves being able to control your emotions and your behaviors. And all of these are linked. So it’s very difficult to measure it in a very broad way.

We measured it with three different tasks that we have when the children come into the lab. And that involves children being able to inhibit a dominant response, and replace it with a more adaptive response. So one way that we measure it is with a bird-alligator task. We have puppets with a bird, and an alligator puppet, and we tell the children to listen to what the bird says. And if the bird says to touch your head, they’re supposed to touch their head. But if the alligator says it, they’re not supposed to do that. So there’s the inhibit response—or the dominant response, excuse me, is to do what the alligator’s telling you to do. But you have to be able to inhibit that, so it’s a form of impulse control. And that ability to inhibit the dominant response and replace it with a more adaptive one is a skill that arises in many different situations in real life that we have to be able to do.

Ms. Daly: If a child has—is it a built-in vocabulary that allows them to send messages to themselves, to their own reactions that moderate how they respond?

Mr. Petersen: That’s a great question. It could be—it could certainly be partially the vocabulary. Developmental psychologists Alexander Luria and Levi Goski talked about language as a form of, as a skill with private speech. So the notion that children speak to themselves, it’s a self-directed speech, and initially it’s out loud. If you see a child engaging in problem solving, they may be speaking out loud to themselves. And it’s not communicating with other people, it’s guiding their own actions. And we think of this private speech as eventually becoming internalized as thought, where children with better language skills have a better symbolic representation, and can then use that language, that thought, in ways to guide their actions.

Ms. Daly: So when the bird says, “Touch your head” and the alligator says, “No, don’t touch your head” is that the conflict that you’re—I want to make sure I understand you correctly?

Mr. Petersen: Right. So the dominant or prepotent response—the response to the alligator—for young children, it’s very difficult to inhibit that response. So many children, even when told not to do what the alligator says, they’ll still do it. When the alligator says touch your head, they will still touch their heads. It’s a form of impulse control that many young children have lots of difficulty with. But some are better able to do it than others. And the children who have poor impulse control in these kinds of tasks have been shown to be more likely to develop behavior problems related to poor impulse control.

Ms. Daly: In your paper—first give us an idea of how you recruited the children and families for your study, because you were obviously looking for children who already did not have that strong language base.

Mr. Petersen: Right. So we have a community sample. So we are not just sampling children who have behavior problems or language deficits. We have a broad range, because we want our findings to generalize to the whole population. So we do have a range. We have a range of children with behavior problems and language deficits, but also children who have few behavior problems and better language skills. So that’s the goal of the community sample. Now, how we go about that is, we recruit in many different ways. We recruit through preschools, we recruit through daycare, and we recruit in lower-income housing areas, so we do try to reach a broad segment of the population.

Ms. Daly: And you’ve mentioned that there have been other studies that have looked at the relationship between language skills and behavioral problems. What did your study add to what we already know?

Mr. Petersen: Previous studies have hypothesized that language could serve other roles in the development of behavioral problems. One hypothesis is that language allows children to communicate their needs and have them met. Another is that parents may be more likely to talk to children with better language skills, rather than use severe punishment in response to misbehavior. And yet another one is that children with poor language skills may be more likely to be rejected by their peers, which could lead to later behavior problems. This is another pathway, another process that could explain how language difficulties could be related to behavior problems.

Ms. Daly: It brings me kind of to an obvious question, if you’re a parent or an educator dealing with young children who exhibit behavioral problems, what advice would you offer? Is reading to them, is building their language skills something that can mediate that?

Mr. Petersen: Absolutely. First I would like to say that there could be many different reasons for behavior problems, and language deficits might be one of many other things. It may not be, for some children, that language difficulties are the reason for behavior problems. Likewise, many children who do have language difficulties may not go on to develop behavior problems. There are differences in growth rates and individual differences, and that’s to be expected. But for some kids who do have language difficulty, then are lagging, then that’s where there are options to consider. First, and this is general advice, you should be talking to and with your children. The children who are less exposed to language are more likely to go on to develop later behavior problems. So having exposure to language, talking to your children, reading to and with your children is also important. It can also be helpful to encourage private or self-directed speech. And then don’t rely on your television or your iPad to help your child learn language.

Ms. Daly: The good old-fashioned way of sitting next to them with a book or telling them a story.

Mr. Petersen: Absolutely.

Ms. Daly: Are there any other aspects of the study that you would like to share? Or anything you think a general audience would like to know that I haven’t asked you?

Mr. Petersen: I would say that if you are concerned, you should speak to a teacher, a pediatrician, a speech and language pathologist, or a child psychologist to do a more formal assessment. So just because your child is lagging, language difficulties may or not mean that they will go on to develop behavior problems. If you are concerned, you can talk to a specialist and get a more formal assessment done. But the good news is that there are good early programs for helping build and support language skills and self-control skills in early childhood. So these are the reasons why we have programs like preschool and Head Start. But if there are difficulties in—if a child does have behavior problems or language difficulties, there are good early speech and language services, and there are good parent-training programs. In our clinic, we deal with lots of children with behavior problems and language difficulties.

Ms. Daly: Literacy is kind of the best medicine.

Mr. Petersen: It’s certainly one of them. You need a multi-tiered approach, but language is important for many things, and self-control appears to be one of them.

Ms. Daly: That’s great. Well, I’ve been speaking with Isaac Peterson, doctoral candidate and lead author of the study that links poor early language skills to later behavioral problems. The study is online in the journal Development and Pyschopathology. Along with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the NIH National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences also provided funding for the study. Mr. Peterson, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mr. Petersen: Thank you. It was a pleasure.


About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute's website at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.

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