This week wanted to write about a study that examined the association between language skills, externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, defiance, etc), and peer rejection in elementary school. We know that language delays have many negative consequences for the children’s academic and social functioning. One common consequence is an increase in externalizing behaviors. That is, on average, children who have a language delay in early childhood go on to display more externalizing behaviors, such as physical and verbal aggression, than their typically developing peers. The question is why? What makes these kids more likely to be aggressive as they get older? One possibility is that their language delays negatively impact their relations with their peers. Specifically, kids with language delays may be more likely to be rejected or may have more difficulty making new friends. Is this really the case?

A study recently published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry addressed this question. The study included 615 children who were followed from kindergarten until 4th grade. In 2nd grade they completed a receptive language measure. Every year the researchers also measured the children’s externalizing behaviors and their peer relations, specifically their experience of peer rejection. The authors wanted to examine if language delays would lead to more peer rejection and such rejection would lead to more externalizing behaviors.

The results:

As you can see the in the graphic above, those kids with average or above average language skills showed a traditional reduction in externalizing symptoms from kindergarten to 4th grade. In contrast, those with poor language skills showed an increase in externalizing behaviors. Now, let’s see the effect of language on peer rejection.

In this case, everyone showed a decline in peer rejection from 1st to 4th grade. However, the better your language skills, the less peer rejection you experienced. You can see that the line for those kids with poor language skills is significantly above the other two lines. This shows that those with poor language skills are rejected significantly more than their peers. Now don’t be scared of the following graph:

The graph above shows the statistical model that was used to determine if peer rejection explains why poor language skills are associated with externalizing behaviors.  I.rej means peer rejection overall. S.rej means peer rejection over time. I.ext means externalizing symptoms overall. S.ext means externalizing symptoms over time. Look at the line that goes from Language skills to S.rej. That -.16* means that language skills significantly impacted the change in social rejection over time. Specifically the lower you language scores, the more peer rejection you would experience over time. Then look at the line that goes from S.rej to S.ext. That .76* means that the change in peer rejection significantly impacted changes in externalizing behaviors over time. In other words, more peer rejection over time was associated with more externalizing symptoms over time. In contrast, look at the lines that go from language skills to I.ext and S.ext. Both of the lines (-.4 and -.17) are not bold and do not have the symbol *, which indicates that these associations are not statistically significant. That is, poor language skills are not associated with externalizing behaviors once we account for how language skills impact peer rejections.

In conclusion, this article suggests that the reason that poor language skills are associated with externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression) in early childhood may be because poor language skills make these kids more likely to be rejected by their peers. A very clear implication of this finding is that providing social skills training to kids with language delays could reduce their experience of social rejection and therefore reduce the possibility that they will show higher levels of aggression and defiance.

The reference:
Menting, B., Van Lier, P., & Koot, H. (2010). Language skills, peer rejection, and the development of externalizing behavior from kindergarten to fourth grade Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02279.x

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6 Responses to Language skills, aggression, and peer rejection in elementary school.

  1. Virginia says:

    It makes sense. Without looking at the charts I can tell that children being children if someone don’t tell them their feelings they assume they don’t have any or just are not bother to try to relate to them. And you can’t blame them really, they are busy themselves exploring and trying to understand how the world works.
    Also children who come from a violent enviroment will take advantage of the children who can not tell. The latter will always be the one to blame.
    Even schools with good support try to help the children with these kind of problems but often do not tell their peers what they should expect from them and how can they could “help”. Interesting subject.

  2. Christine says:

    Do you know if any of the children tested have an intellectual disability? Were the children tested in the lower language scale non verbal? Were the tests done on expressive and receptive language? It would be interesting to see if voice output devices would have a larger impact as well in decreasing aggression and peer rejection.

    • @Christine, the kids were not tested for overall intellectual ability. So one limitation is that the results may be due to more general intellectual differences among the kids. The language assessment was limited to receptive language (which actually has a lower correlation with IQ than expressive language).

      @Yvonne, thanks. fixed.

      @virginia, in this case the study examined receptive language only, although receptive and expressive language are highly correlated. So your idea that these kids may be more rejected because they don’t express their feelings could be true.

      Thanks all for the comments. Nestor.

  3. Yvonne Falk says:

    Hi Nestor. Just a trifle. Underneath the third graph you write: “In other words, more peer relation over time was associated with more externalizing symptoms over time.”
    I guess you mean: …more peer rejection over time…

  4. [...] a new study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that aggressive behavior might not be a direct cause of slower language.The researchers see a step in between, and it has to do with [...]

  5. [...] Language skills, aggression, and peer rejection in elementary school [...]

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