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Behavior Modification for Children: A Question of Language?

By Edited Sep 19, 2016 0 0

Behavioral difficulties are known by several different names such as behavior disorders, social, emotional and behavioral difficulties (SEBD), and oppositional defiant disorder.  They can appear alone or they can appear alongside other difficulties such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or different types of learning difficulties.  Possible causes put forward in the case of children with no associated learning difficulties include poverty, genetics, abuse, prenatal drug exposure, among others.  Another well documented problem that correlates highly with behavioral problems is language impairment

Language impairment (LI) is defined by different therapists in different ways, but generally refers to a situation where a child’s linguistic abilities are not keeping up with those of his or her peers to a degree where understanding and communication is hampered.  Possibly the main reason that LI is so rarely discussed as a potential cause of behavior problems is the fact that this problem is difficult to recognize without testing by a trained Speech and Language Pathologist.  LI is commonly overlooked, going undiagnosed or sometimes being incorrectly diagnosed as more general learning disabilities.

LI can damage several different areas of language.  Although the core problem is often considered to be difficulties in sound processing of the sounds of language, this then goes on to affect other areas of language such as grammar and vocabulary in both the production and comprehension of language.[1]  It is important to note that children with LI do not speak any differently than other children in any way that could be identified by parents.  For example, children with language impairment do not speak slower or less clearly than other children because the problem is not one of speech production.  Instead, the difficulty lies in the brain’s processing of language, the code of symbols which link sounds to ideas.

So what is the connection between LI and behavior?  First, several studies have shown a very high correlation between behavior issues in children and languistic problems.  One study of 20 boys from age 10–13 who were in specialized residential treatment due to behavioral problems were tested for LI.[2]  Results found that 80% of them had language problems that had never been diagnosed.  A similar study of 17 children aged 6–12 in a unit for children with moderate behavioral problems found that 16 of them suffered from speech and/or language problems serious enough to require speech and language therapy.[3]  Although correlation does not prove causation, the underlying theory is that a lack of language skills leads the child to experience frustration as they don’t have the language skills needed to take in information and to build social relationships in the same way that other children do.  This frustration then leads to problematic behavior in the form of outbursts, tantrums, general expressions of anger or withdrawal.

Realizing the strong links between language and behavior provides parents with an alternative way of understanding and treating the behavior.  Diagnoses of children from around the age of 3 can be provided by Speech and Language Pathologists which can be accessed through a school or the child’s pediatrician.  As part of the diagnosis, especially for younger children, parents may be asked to fill in questionnaires about the child’s linguistic behavior.  Some signs of LI include starting to speak late and having other members of their family with a known or suspected language impairment including dyslexia.  However, children with language impairment often have no signs that were recognized by either parents or teachers.

behavior modification

Obtaining a diagnosis of LI can then begin a new course of treatment for the child with both language and behavioral problems.  Speech and Language Pathologists and sometimes Educational Psychologists can provide treatment to support the linguistic abilities of the child.  Also, schools should provide support for children with communication difficulties, thereby helping the child to communicate in the classroom and hopefully minimizing frustration and therefore leading to positive behavior modification, peer relationships and overall learning ability.  



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  1. Leonard, L.B Children with Specific Language Impairment. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
  2. Warr-Leeper, G., Wright, N.A. and Mack, A. "Language disabilities of antisocial boys in residential treatment." Behavioral Disorders. 19 (1994): 159–169.
  3. Burgess, J., and G. Bransby "An evaluation of the speech and language skills of children with emotional and behavioural problems." Bulletin of the College of Speech Therapists. 453 (1990): 2-3.

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