Language Competence and Social Behavior of Students with Emotional or Behavioral Disorders

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ABSTRACT: This study was designed to explore a model of communicative competence (Abbeduto & Nuccio, 1989) and identify whether its components could (a) predict pragmatic language difficulties for children with emotional or behavioral disorders (E/BD) and (b) describe the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic language ability as well as the social skills of these children. The Test of Language Development (Newcomer & Hammill, 1997), the Social Skills Rating System (Cresham & Elliot, 1990), and the Test of Pragmatic Language (Phelps-Terasaki & Phelps-Gunn, 1992) were used to assess 61 students. Results indicated that 93.5% of the students scored between one and two standard deviations below the mean in at least one area. Statistical analysis revealed that semantic language, syntactic language, IQ, and social skills-components of the model of communicative competence-predicted pragmatic language competence.

One of the most salient and consistently reported characteristics of students with emotional or behavioral disorders (E/BD) is a deficiency in social skills used in developing and maintaining positive social interactions and interpersonal relationships with peers and adults (Brinton & Fujiki, 1993; Center & Wascom, 1987; Hartas & Donahue, 1997; Mathur & Rutherford, 1996; Sutherland, Wehby, & Yoder, 2002). Recent research has also suggested that some children with E/BD have language-based communication problems that may contribute to their difficulties in social skills and interactions (Bain, 2001; Cohen, Davine, Horodezsky, Lipsett, & lsaacson, 1993; Griffith, Rogers-Adkinson, & Cusick, 1997; Trautman, Giddan, & Jurs, 1990; Vallance, Cummings, & Humphries, 1998).

Bain (2001) found that in a sample of 37 children identified with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) receiving social skills instruction and cognitive-behavioral therapy, there was evidence of expressive language deficits that were secondarily associated with social competency. Cohen and colleagues (1993) found that in a sample of children receiving outpatient E/BD services, there was evidence of language difficulties that resulted in inappropriate adult-child interactions. These were attributed to difficulties in using and understanding language that are interpreted by adults as noncompliant and inattentive behaviors (Cohen et al.).

Earlier work by McDonough (1989) supported these findings and suggested that expressive language deficits also may have a significant effect on these children's thought processes, behavior control, and social interaction when interacting with peers and adults. However, most children with E/BD are not assessed in the area of communicative competence, which suggests that language difficulties are frequently overlooked and may be misinterpreted as behavioral problems (Kirn & Kaiser, 2000).

It has been estimated that approximately 7% to 10% percent of the school-aged population have a language disability (Damico, Oiler, & Storey, 1983). The prevalence rates for children who have co-occurring E/BD and language and/or communication disabilities range from 20% to 65% (Baker & Cantwell, 1987; Brinton & Fujiki, 1993; Griffith et al., 1997; Hummel & Prizant, 1993; Trautman et al., 1990; Warr-Leeper, Wright, & Mack, 1994). Specifically, Griffith and colleagues found that between 55% and 83% of a sample of children served in day and residential treatment centers for children with behavioral disorders scored at least one standard deviation below the norm in pragmatic language ability. Although there has been substantial research in social and behavioral characteristics of students with E/BD, the research in language and communication characteristics has been limited, especially in school settings.

There is an increasing recognition that all children are active social thinkers who use cognitive, communicative, and linguistic skills simultaneously in social interactions in order to construct social knowledge (Hartas & Donahue, 1997; Prizant & Wetherby, 1990). …