Children whose vocabulary skills develop slowly are more likely to experience emotional and behavioural issues in adolescence, a new study shows.
The research is the first to model how children’s language development influences changes in mental health problems over a 10-year period, from early childhood to adolescence.
The research, led by Deakin School of Psychology researcher Dr Elizabeth Westrupp, found a link between slower vocabulary skills and hyperactivity.
“We found new evidence that lower growth in vocabulary over primary school was associated with increased child hyperactivity-inattention at eight to nine years, and more rapid increases in hyperactivity-inattention over early to middle teenage years, up to 14 to 15 years,” Dr Westrupp said.
“These findings show the importance of monitoring children through middle childhood and adolescence as they develop.”
Data from nearly 5000 Australian children was gathered in the study, with children assessed six times between four and 15 years of age.
The research also investigated possible reasons for the association between language development and behavioural issues.
“We found that children’s academic experiences in middle childhood explained the link between early vocabulary development and teenage emotional and behavioural problems,” Dr Westrupp said.
“It may be that children with lower vocabulary skills struggle more in the classroom with reading and literacy, which then leads to the development of behavioural and emotional problems in teenage years.”
NEED FOR REGULAR CONVERSATIONS ABOUT LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT
Dr Westrupp said early literacy-based interventions may alleviate declining academic, emotional and behavioural functioning in adolescence.
“There’s already some evidence to suggest that children with early language problems have higher rates of behavioural and emotional difficulties compared to other children,” Dr Westrupp said.
“However prior research only looked at children at one point in time, and we know that children’s language ability and mental health are not static, they change as children grow.
“Understanding these associations will allow parents and teachers to better support children in preventing childhood mental health problems.”
Dr Westrupp said it was critical the focus was not just on kids who entered school with low language skills, but also kids who were dropping behind their peers in the first few years of primary school.
“Schools and parents must work together to identify and monitor children falling behind in language, that means having supportive and regular conversations about how a child’s language is developing,” she said.