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Mother and child interactive behaviours as predictors of later language skills

This blog post was written by Laura Conway, third year MCRI PhD candidate.
Laura's supervisors: Prof Sheena Reilly, Dr Penny Levickis, Dr Fiona Mensah and Prof Melissa Wake

Imagine being in a class or workshop. You are keen to learn something new. When the teacher starts to talk however, you cannot understand all the words she is using. You look around to see that everyone else seems to be getting their reading books from their bags and forming groups, nodding, and asking questions. You try to join in but you are totally lost and feel like giving-up. For one in five children starting school with language difficulties, this may be what their classroom experience is like. If this happened to us we could decide that the lesson wasn’t that important, or we might speak to the teacher after class to get some background reading. But children with language difficulties may not have the communication skills or confidence to do this. It is not surprising that these children are at risk of poorer academic, employment and psychosocial outcomes than their friends who have typically developing language.

Since language difficulties are so common and the cascading negative consequences so far-reaching, research has sought to find out if we can predict children at risk. Seminal population-based research at MCRI from the Early Language in Victoria Study (ELVS) has discovered a range of factors that can help prediction, including being a boy, having a family history of language difficulties, and growing up in a socially disadvantaged area. However, not all children ticking those boxes will develop difficulties, and equally not all children who develop language difficulties tick all those boxes. So research continues to seek other ways of not only identifying children at risk, but of intervening to support those with language difficulties. Understanding what may promote and what may impede language development in the early years is vital to inform these interventions.

This is where my research comes in. Much of early language learning happens during interactions between the child and her main caregiver. Imagine a caregiver and child communicating like a game of tennis. Through a game of serve and return they influence each other’s communication, fine-tuning their game as the child’s skills improve. Imagine if we were able to identify particular serve and return behaviours that promote or impede the child’s language learning? What if praising a child encouraged him to interact for longer, increasing the number of conversational turns he takes and his exposure to new words? What if directing a child to new activities brakes her concentration and reduces her language learning opportunities? Or what if a child does not share attention with his caregiver, focusing on his own agenda to the exclusion of his caregiver?

I am focusing on these, and other, serve and return behaviours used by mothers and their two year olds in play. I am testing my hypotheses using data from MCRI’s Let’s Learn Language and Language for Learning studies. Two hundred children had their language skills assessed by trained research assistants when they were 2, 3 and 4 years old. They were also filmed whilst playing with their mums at home when they were 2-years old. I am coding the serve and return behaviours used in these videos. I will then see if those behaviours are related to later language. If I find they are, then it is likely they will be amenable to change. This means they could be targeted in interventions for children at risk of later language difficulties as well as being used for more generic advice for parents of young children.

I am in my final year of my PhD. I hope my findings will ultimately help children with language difficulties develop the skills and confidence they need to participate fully at school.