Do language difficulties cause behavioural problems at school? (A 2022 research update)

Do language difficulties cause behavioural problems at school? (A 2022 research update)

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It’s been years since we last wrote about this important topic for families of children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) and other language difficulties. Since then, more high quality, peer-reviewed research has been published on the relationship(s) between language difficulties and behaviour. 

It’s time for an update!

Why are the links between language skills and behaviour so important?

  • Children with language impairments are 1.84-2.26 times more likely than their peers to exhibit behaviour problems in later childhood and adolescence (Yew & Kearney, 2013).
  • Many children with significant language difficulties are not diagnosed until they are referred for behavioural problems (Bishop et al., 2016).
  • Language and behavioural skills co-develop; and it is likely that there are reciprocal relationships between them (Chow et al., 2020).

Do language difficulties cause behavioural problems?

The million dollar question. And we don’t – yet – have a definitive answer:

  • Oral language skills appear important for psychosocial development. But it’s unclear:
    • if poor language skills cause behavioural problems; or 
    • if improving children’s language skills results in better behaviour. 
  • There is some evidence that a parent-delivered language intervention for preschoolers may contribute to improved behaviour (Curtis et al., 2019).
  • Positive emotional support provided in classrooms by teachers may reduce the effects of oral language difficulties on behaviour; and good child-teacher relationships may act as a protective factor for children with language difficulties (Qui et al., 2020; and Rhoad-Drogalis et al., 2018).

For young school-age children with language difficulties, there is now high quality evidence to suggest that:

  • early language intervention involving small group and individual language teaching by a trained educator can improve language skills; and
  • individual and small group activities that involve teaching children to sit, attend, listen, and to speak at appropriate times, with rewards for following teacher expectations, are associated with improved behaviour at school. However, these improvements are not caused by improvements in their language skills (West et al., 2022 – see below for full citation). 

Clinical Bottom line

Despite the interesting findings of West and colleagues, and as the authors note themselves, there are plausible reasons to think that improving the language skills of students with DLD might improve their behaviour at school. What’s clear from the research is that educators play a very important role in promoting pro-social and classroom-appropriate behaviour in children, independent of language instruction. 

For families, our key advice hasn’t changed:

  • If your child has been diagnosed with emotional and/or behavioural issues, evidence suggests it is likely that they have language difficulties.
  • If your child has been diagnosed with DLD or another language disorder, it is probable that they may be perceived by others (including parents, teachers and peers) as exhibiting “challenging behaviours” or emotional problems.

For these reasons, all children with emotional, social or behavioural issues should be assessed by a speech pathologist for language difficulties. For children diagnosed with DLD and other language disorders, evidence-based language intervention works to improve language outcomes.

We need more research – including longer-term follow-ups of children – to understand how best to support children with DLD and other language difficulties with behaviour at school.

Key source: West, G., Lervåg A., Snowling, M,J., Buchanan-Worster, E., Duta, M., Hulme, C. (2022). Early language intervention improves behavioural adjustment in school: Evidence from a cluster randomised trial. Journal of School Psychology 92, 334-335. doi: 10.1016/j.jsp.2022.04.006

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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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