Language skills, aggression, and peer rejection in elementary school.

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

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 childrens 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 childrens 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, lets 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 dont 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