How maternal responses support child language development in adversity

How maternal responses support child language development in adversity

Posted by Annemieke Hendriks on Mon 10 Jul. 2023 - 3 minute read

As a parent, you want to support your child in their language development. Research1 shows that how you talk to them and respond to what they are saying is crucial in this. How does this work in families facing adversity? Researchers Boulton, Levickis, and Eadle studied mothers and children facing adversity to find out what helps best in stimulating their language development.

Stimulating language development in early childhood

Studies show that mothers' responsive behaviors have a positive influence on their children's language development. Specifically, it works well to ask responsive questions, imitate what a child says, and expand on a child's words. There is also some evidence that labeling has a positive effect. What do we mean by these behaviors?

For example, a responsive question can be "What's that?" when a child picks up a toy. Imitation means that a parent simply repeats what a child says. With expanding, a parent not only repeats their child's words, but adds something new as well. For example, when a child exclaims "Car!" a parent may respond with "Yes, it's a red car." Lastly, labeling is about naming what a child is seeing, holding, or doing.

Different needs for each developmental stage

It's important to note that these maternal responses only stimulate language development when it's appropriate for their children's developmental stage. This is in line with Vygotsky's theory of scaffolding2, which states that parents should respond in a way that is slightly above a child's current developmental level - but not too high. This way of responding supports development of language in childhood. 

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Parents and children facing adversity

With this in mind, it makes sense that children who are vulnerable for difficulties in their language development may benefit from different maternal responses at a certain age. One cohort that is at risk for language delays and disorders is children facing adversity.

In the study by researchers Boulton, Levickis, and Eadle, adversity can have different meanings. For example, childhood adversity may mean that their mothers got pregnant young, have dimished health or income, or experience an anxious mood.

As a result of childhood adversity, children may experience language difficulties at a young age, as well as long-term consequences such as poorer academic performance and social difficulties. Early intervention is key in preventing developmental problems.

That's why the research team studied maternal responses and language development in families facing adversity.

Observing mothers' behaviors

For the first part of the study, the research team studied 138 mother-child dyads at home, when the children who participated were 2 years old. They were recorded during 8 minutes of free play, of which 300 seconds from the middle of the recording were used for analysis.

When these children were 5 years old, another home assessment was completed, this time using the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals - 4 (CELF-4) to assess receptive and expressive language outcomes.

Using The Observer XT, the researchers coded the four maternal responsive behaviors we discussed earlier in this blog post: expansions, imitations, responsive questions, and labels. They studied the relationship between these behaviors and child language outcomes at 5 years old.

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Best results for imitation

They found that using imitations, responsive questions, and labels was positively associated with child languages scores at the age of 5 years. Surprisingly, they did not find a significant association with expansions. However, for more accurate analysis, they also corrected for other factors that play a role in language development, including children's earlier communication skills.

The result? After adjusting for these factors, only imitations were still associated with better child language outcomes. The researchers suggest that these maternal responses fit the developmental stage of this group of children best, while responsive questions and adding labels were less appropriate for them at this age. 

How to stimulate language development in early childhood

This study used behavioral coding to study the relationship between mothers' responses and their children's later language outcomes, in families facing adversity. The results highlight how important it is to consider a child's developmental stage when responding to them.

More specifically, it's worthwhile for parents in this cohort to focus on using imitations in their communication, as it's the most effective way to stimulate language development in early childhood. 

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  • [1] Madigan, S., Prime, H., Graham, S. A., Rodrigues, M., Anderson, N., Khoury, J., & Jenkins, J. M. (2019). Parenting behaviour and child language: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 144(4), e20183556.
  • [2] Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Boulton, C.; Levickis, P.; Eadie, T. (2022). Maternal responsive behaviours and child language outcomes in a cohort of mothers and children facing adversity. Early Child Development and Care,  
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