Chow, J. C., & Wehby, J. H. (2016). Associations between language and problem behavior: A systematic review and correlational meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s10648-016-9385-z
There is a well-documented high co-occurrence rate of language and behavioral deficits for school-age children. For students with an emotional/behavioral disorder, 81% have an unidentified language deficit (Hollo, Wehby, & Oliver, 2014), and students with a specific language impairment are twice as likely to develop a behavior or attention-related difficulty (Yew & O’Kearney, 2013). Both problem behavior and language deficits also lead to long-term negative outcomes such as difficulties in employment and postsecondary education. Therefore, a better understanding of the relationships and constructs underlying both language and behavior is important when developing and implementing interventions to improve student outcomes.
Research supports a negative relationship between oral language ability (i.e., expressive, receptive) and problem behaviors, meaning that as language abilities increase, problem behaviors decrease. Yet the causal mechanisms underlying this relationship have not yet been determined. According to Hinshaw, Han, Erhardt, and Huber (1992), there are four possible scenarios for the nature of the causal relationship between problem behavior and oral language deficits:
In the reviewed article, Chow and Wehby (2016) use Hinshaw et al.'s (1992) framework as a basis for conceptualizing and meta-analyzing the correlations between oral language and problem behavior.
In this meta-analysis, the authors posit that the underlying construct for learning and social development is both expressive and receptive oral language ability. In this model, language influences academic and behavioral skills, followed by academic and behavioral skills interacting and influencing each other.
In the classroom context, language and effective communication skills are essential for success. For teachers, language is the primary mode of communication, and for students, effective communication skills are necessary to demonstrate understanding of academic concepts.
Students with problem behaviors often have expressive and receptive language deficits. These deficits can lead to a negative cycle, in which students engage in problem behaviors to avoid instruction and academic demands, falling further behind and thus reinforcing the underlying cause of problem behavior.
To better support our students and teachers, it is beneficial to understand the relationship between language ability and problem behavior. Chow and Wehby (2016) conducted the first review to quantify and test the correlation between oral language and problem behavior. They tested the correlations in two separate meta-analyses. In the first analysis, they explored the concurrent correlations, in which oral language and problem behavior were measured once and at the same time. In the second analysis, they explored studies in which oral language abilities were assessed prior to the assessment of problem behavior.
Additionally, the authors investigated whether the strength of the correlation would change if they looked at receptive language compared to expressive language, internalizing behavior compared to externalizing behavior, or different ages or risk statuses.
To complete their meta-analysis, the authors included studies that included the following:
A total of 19 studies met the inclusion criteria for the concurrent meta-analysis, and 8 studies met the inclusion criteria for the predictive meta-analysis.
This meta-analysis found that as oral language abilities decrease, problem behaviors increase. This association was small but statistically significant. This finding was consistent when investigating the relationship for both expressive and receptive oral language skills and for externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors. Additionally, the findings were consistent across age groups and risk factors, yet the authors note that the meta-analysis may not have included sufficient studies to detect such differences.
One of the primary limitations of the study was in analyzing the problem behavior outcomes. Some behavior outcomes were problem behavior composite scores, which may have been confounded by including items of hyperactivity, inattention, and internalizing behavior, thus influencing the findings. This study’s analysis was also not able to differentiate teacher and parent reports on behavioral outcomes.
Overall, this study and previous studies support the notion that oral language deficits and problem behaviors are related and that continued research is required to support practitioners and students and improve academic outcomes.
Hinshaw, S. P., Han, S. S., Erhardt, D., & Huber, A. (1992). Internalizing and externalizing behavior problems in preschool children: Correspondence among parent and teacher ratings and behavior observations. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 21, 143–150. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp2102_6
Hollo, A., Wehby, J. H., & Oliver, R. M. (2014). Unidentified language deficits in children with emotional and behavioral disorders: A meta-analysis. Exceptional Children, 80, 169–186. doi:10.1177/001440291408000203
Yew, S. G. K., & O’Kearney, R. (2013). Emotional and behavioural outcomes in childhood and adolescence with specific language impairments: Meta-analyses of controlled prospective studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54, 516–524. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12009