Indiana Daily Student

?IU research connects poor language skills to behavioral problems

A new IU study has tracked links between early language skills and subsequent behavior problems in young children.

The paper, ”The Role of Language Ability and Self-Regulation in the Development of Inattentive-Hyperactive Behavior Problems,” suggests that poor language skills limit the ability to control one’s behavior, which in turn can lead to behavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disorders of inattention and hyperactivity.

Linda Smith, Chancellor’s professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said the research argues for public preschool and early intervention.

John Bates, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and co-author of the study, said children’s brains are most malleable and most likely to acquire skills in language and self-regulation earlier in life.

“Many of the states are starting to focus on preschool, edging toward universal preschool, but early development specialists are not necessarily available,” he said. “I would have programs more readily available to families — and focused on children most at risk as early as possible.”

“There is a growing area of research that suggests early environments that limit language developmental have cascading effects on school achievements and on brain development,” she said. “This work adds social development outcomes to the list.”

Isaac Peterson, doctoral student in the clinical science program of IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said the idea that language helps children control their behavior was first proposed by famous developmental psychologists Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, but their hypotheses have not been thoroughly tested.

“When we found that poorer language ability predicted growth in children’s behavior problems via their self-regulation, it felt like we were helping to validate these important ideas,” he said.

Peterson said he has been working on this research project for all of his five years in graduate school, but that the study has been going on for years before that.

“We have many undergraduate and graduate students helping with the project by recruiting families, running participants, coding or analyzing data, so it has been the work of many, many people over many years,” he said.

Peterson said the study was conducted using the bird/alligator task, a variant of Simon Says and a common way to measure children’s self-regulation. He said it is difficult for children to inhibit a dominant response, such as not touching one’s head when the alligator tells the child to touch his or her head, and that some children are better able than others to control impulses.

“Children who show poorer impulse control in these tasks have been shown to be more likely to develop behavior problems relating to poor self-regulation, such as ADHD,” Peterson said. “It is not a perfect measure of impulse control, so we use multiple different measures to get a better estimate of the children’s self-regulation ability.”

Peterson said the team is still following up with the children who participated in the study and hope to follow them into preschool to see the early predictors of school readiness.

Peterson said that because language and behavior are related, improving a child’s language could theoretically improve his or her behavior.

“By being aware of early risk factors for self-regulation and behavior problems, parents can seek early services, such as speech and language, if they feel their child may be at risk,” he said. “In general, the earlier the treatment, the more effective it is because children are most likely to develop these skills early on.”

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