Language acquisition is not just a question of developing language skills

Justin Markussen-Brown

The role of behaviour regulation skills in acquiring language

In current approaches to supporting children’s language acquisition in childcare settings, there is a lot of focus on developing things like vocabulary and phonological awareness, and this makes perfect sense, because vocabulary size and phonological awareness are predictors of both later language and literacy skills (Storch & Whitehurst, 2002). Therefore, if we observe a child, for example, with atypically low receptive vocabulary (the words he or she understands), it is usually very helpful to make extra efforts to support the child’s vocabulary learning. This includes increasing number and quality of typical interactions such as shared-book readings, and linguistically rich conversations throughout the day.

But focussing on language skills is not the only way to support language learning.

Another important predictor of a child’s language skills – yet a little less obvious – is a child’s ability to control his or her own behaviour. Researchers refer to the skills and processes involved in controlling own behaviour by a few different names, but in this blog post, I’ll use the terminology behaviour regulation (McClelland et al., 2007).

What is exactly involved in behaviour regulation? Researchers don’t completely agree regarding what components it consists of, but in general, we can say that a human being needs adequate skills in attention, working memory and inhibitory control to get about his or her business in an orderly fashion. We use our behaviour regulation skills constantly. Take, for example, the task of waiting in line to pay at the grocery store. Sometimes, we are met with a long line of people in front of us. Why not just push to the front? We would surely finish our shopping faster if we did so! Well, most people have learned via similar previous experiences (usually acquired in early childhood) that doing so is counter-productive to completing the task. If we did push to the front of the line, other people would start yelling, maybe someone would call us something you can’t say on TV, and very likely the store manager would get involved, possibly refuse to serve us, and maybe even ask us never to return. So, did pushing to the front of the line help us to complete our task more expediently? Nope. On the other hand, if we understand that waiting in line, although seemingly slower, in fact helps us to complete our task faster, then we control our behaviour accordingly, wait in line, and complete the task in a few minutes without getting kicked out of the grocery store.

In the daily life of any human being, there are countless examples of behaviour regulation calculations going on in the brain that allow us to complete our tasks. Sometimes, controlling our behaviour also means waiting a very long time for the benefits. Such is the case with education. Having been a student and teacher at universities for many years, I can say with 100% certainty that nearly no students actually enjoy going to classes (especially before 11 am). But, in general, the students do it because they know that in some years, they will experience the benefits of education, such as when they get a job, gain more prestige, or whatever it may be that is their personal driving force. No matter what the task though, attention, working memory and inhibitory control are the cognitive skills that allow control of behaviour to occur. One must be able to pay attention to what is going on, remember tasks and other cues, and in the end exercise control over emotional impulses and so on.

Watch a video demonstrating a classic test of behaviour regulation: The Marshmallow Test!

In children, these cognitive skills are immature and must develop over childhood. At the same time, developing them quickly has obvious benefits for getting along with others, not to mention succeeding in school. In school, a child needs to be able to receive instruction from a teacher. This requires a lot of behaviour regulation! During classes, the child needs to be able to direct attention towards the teacher, remember the instructions the teacher gave, and suppress or postpone certain urges (such as the urge to throw things at another child or jump out the window and go play).

Research on behaviour regulation and language

So, behaviour regulation skills have clear benefits for success in our school system, but interestingly, scientific research indicates that these same skills correlate with children’s language development. For example, Vallotton & Ayoub (2011) found that toddlers with larger vocabularies tended to have better behaviour regulation skills. This means that if a toddler knows more words, he or she is better at attending to adults, remembering what they say, and controlling own behaviour accordingly. In another study, McClelland et al. (2007) studied four-year-old preschoolers and found that the children with the best behaviour regulation skills also had larger vocabularies, better phonological awareness, and better early mathematics skills. Interestingly, they also found that improvements in behaviour regulation skills predicted improvements in language skills, which suggests that improving behaviour regulation may go hand-in-hand with improving language skills for some children. In a study of slightly older children, Matthews, Ponitz, & Morrison (2009) also found that behaviour management skills in five-year-olds correlated with phonological awareness and mathematics skills. Note that all of these studies found that girls tended to develop behaviour regulation skills faster than boys (but note as well, that we boys do eventually catch up).

Why do we see a relation between behaviour regulation skills and language acquisition? The short answer appears to be that behaviour regulation skills are really just a grouping of underlying cognitive processes that are also active in facilitating language acquisition. For example, during a typical shared-book reading session between a mother and her toddler, in which the mother talks to the child about the things in the book (a very stimulating interaction for language), the child has to use attention skills, working memory and inhibitory control in order to attend and learn from what the mother is doing and saying. Like with language, the more the child uses these skills, the stronger they become.

Note that the relationship between behaviour regulation and language acquisition is likely reciprocal: better behaviour regulation skills allow a child to improve language skills, while better language skills allow the child to improve behaviour regulation skills. For example, when a three-year-old has a larger vocabulary, the child is better able to understand when the adult explains a concept such as why taking turns is important during playtime. These very same underlying cognitive skills that help a child to develop turn-taking skills appear to aid the child in learning from the language environment in return.

Behaviour management skills can protect against the effects of low quality in childcare

One last study that I would like to mention in this blog post is work from Schmitt, Pentimonti, & Justice, (2012). In this study, the researchers investigated the relationship between the quality of educator-child relations and children’s behaviour regulation and language skills. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that nurturing educator-child relationships benefited language and behaviour regulation. However, the researchers also found that in cases in which the adults were not adequately nurturing, children with stronger behaviour regulation skills still managed to show gains in grammar. In short, it appears that behaviour regulation skills act like a protective coating on children experiencing less than ideal emotional environments. Research has documented that many children growing up in poverty benefit from extra language support in childcare settings (Justice, Mashburn, Hamre, & Pianta, 2008), but helping children to develop behaviour regulation skills may be important too.

A more holistic approach to supporting language acquisition

To summarize, language support in early childhood education often revolves around supporting early language skills (such as phonological awareness, vocabulary, pragmatic language use, grammar skills and narrative skills), and this is of course a very good thing. However, we can further support children’s language acquisition by supporting their development of basic behaviour regulation. In doing so, however, we should be mindful not to let the one approach replace the other, but rather strive towards a holistic approach that integrates both.

Justice, L. M., Mashburn, A. J., Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2008). Quality of language and literacy instruction in preschool classrooms serving at-risk pupils. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(1), 51–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2007.09.004

Matthews, J. S., Ponitz, C. C., & Morrison, F. J. (2009). Early gender differences in self-regulation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 689– 704. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014240

McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Connor, C. M., Farris, C. L., Jewkes, A. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2007). Links between behavioral regulation and preschoolers’ literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 947–959. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.43.4.947

Schmitt, M. B., Pentimonti, J. M., & Justice, L. M. (2012). Teacher–child relationships, behavior regulation, and language gain among at-risk preschoolers. Journal of School Psychology, 50(5), 681–699. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2012.04.003

Storch, S. A., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2002). Oral language and code-related precursors to reading: Evidence from a longitudinal structural model. Developmental Psychology, 38(6), 934–947. https://doi.org/10.1037//0012-1649.38.6.934

Vallotton, C., & Ayoub, C. (2011). Use Your Words: The Role of Language in the Development of Toddlers’ Self-Regulation. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 26(2), 169–181. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2010.09.002