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Language Skills Can Shape Children's Impulse Control, Research Says

Can limited speech silence the better angels of students' nature?

In the cartoons, a little angel and devil pop up on the shoulders of a character about to make a decision, arguing in favor of good or evil. In my 2-year-old son, I can eavesdrop on his real decisionmaking process as he talks himself through why he shouldn't hang on his baby brother's swing: "No, mommy says it can fall so I can't swing on the swing, but I want to swing on it a little ..."

As he gets older, my toddler's spoken dialogue with himself will turn into an internal monologue that can help him control his behavior and impulses. Now, research from Indiana University finds that some children with poor language skills not only have trouble communicating with others, but can also lack the "running internal monologue" that helps them control their behavior.

In a series of studies published in the journals Development and Psychopathology, and the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers led by Isaac Petersen, a doctoral candidate in child clinical neuropsychology at the Cognitive Development Lab at Indiana University, Bloomington, tracked children's language development from preschool through the early teen-age years, comparing language skills with behavior issues rated by parents and teachers, as well as the students' performance on impulse-control tests.

After controlling for students' sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, prior levels of behavior problems, and academic performance in mathematics, reading, and short-term memory, Petersen found students' language skills predicted their later behavior problems more strongly than behavior problems predicted later language skills.

In the tests of self-regulation, Petersen found a link: Children with lower language skills had less "self-directed speech" and were less able to self-regulate in tasks requiring impulse control.

"The children who are less exposed to language are more likely to go on to develop later behavior problems," Petersen said during a fantastic podcast on the research by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "So having exposure to language, talking to your children, reading to and with your children is also important. It can also be helpful to encourage private or self-directed speech."

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