Play and prosociality are associated with fewer externalizing problems in children with developmental language disorder : the role of early language and communication environment

Toseeb, Umar and Gibson, Jenny L. and Newbury, Dianne F. and Orlik, Witold and Durkin, Kevin and Pickles, Andrew and Conti-Ramsden, Gina (2020) Play and prosociality are associated with fewer externalizing problems in children with developmental language disorder : the role of early language and communication environment. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 55 (4). pp. 583-602. ISSN 1368-2822

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    Abstract

    Background: Children with developmental language disorder (DLD) are at higher risk of poorer mental health compared with children without DLD. There are, however, considerable individual differences that need to be interpreted, including the identification of protective factors. Aims: Pathways from the early language and communication environment (ELCE, 1–2 years) to internalizing (peer and emotional problems) and externalizing (conduct problems and hyperactivity) problems in middle childhood (11 years) were mapped using structural equation modelling. Specifically, the role of indirect pathways via social skills (friendships, play and prosociality) in childhood (7–9 years) was investigated. Methods & Procedures: Secondary analysis of existing data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) was undertaken. The study sample consisted of 6531 children (394 with DLD). Outcomes & Results: The pathways from the ELCE to internalizing and externalizing problems were similar for children with and without DLD. For both groups, a positive ELCE was associated with more competent social play and higher levels of prosociality in childhood, which in turn were associated with fewer externalizing problems in middle childhood. Furthermore, better friendships and higher levels of prosociality in childhood were both associated with fewer internalizing problems in middle childhood. Conclusions & Implications: A child's ELCE is potentially important not only for the development of language but also for social development. Furthermore, in the absence of adequate language ability, play and prosocial behaviours may allow children with DLD to deploy, practise and learn key social skills, thus protecting against externalizing problems. We suggest that consideration be given to play- and prosociality-based educational and therapeutic services for children with DLD. What this paper adds What is already known on this subject On the whole, children with DLD tend to have poorer mental health compared with their unaffected peers. There are, however, considerable differences and poor outcomes are not inevitable. What this study adds to the existing knowledge We demonstrate that children's ECLE is important for the development of social play behaviours and prosociality. Whilst children with DLD tend to have less competent social play and lower levels of prosociality compared with their unaffected peers, those with more competent social play and higher levels of prosociality are likely to have fewer externalizing problems later in childhood. We speculate that in the absence of adequate structural language ability, play and prosocial behaviours allow children with DLD to deploy, practise and learn key relationship skills, alongside behavioural and emotional regulation skills, thus protecting against externalizing problems. What are the potential or actual clinical implications of this work? Understanding the relationships among play, prosociality and externalizing problems may pave the way for play- and prosociality-based interventions in children with DLD. This may be particularly appealing for practitioners as such interventions capitalize on one of the most intuitive means of learning in childhood: play with friends. The likelihood of acceptability and engagement with such interventions may be higher in children than for traditional adult-led, paper-and-pencil activities.