Academic journal article Journal of Correctional Education

Juvenile Offenders with Co-Occurring Language and Behavior Problems: Language Suggestions

Academic journal article Journal of Correctional Education

Juvenile Offenders with Co-Occurring Language and Behavior Problems: Language Suggestions

Article excerpt


The prevalence of co-occurring language and behavioral problems has been described and studied for more than 25 years (Armstrong, 2011; Baker & Cantwell, 1987; Goh Kok Yew & O'Kearney, 2013). As many as 62% to 95% of students identified with an emotional or behavioral disorder (E/BD) also have moderate to severe language problems (Benner, Nelson, & Epstein, 2002). Unfortunately, many children with E/BD have undetected language impairments (LI). Without recognizing the co-occurring challenges that students face, serious learning consequences may result. Solely implementing behavior management techniques with these students only provides partial support.

Adolescent offenders often demonstrate the need for both language and behavior management intervention (Armstrong, 2011; Sanger, Maag, & Miner, 2016). Overlooking this co-occurrence ultimately could result in a lack of progress in behavior management, conversational interactions, and/or social skills while in the juvenile justice systems (Armstrong, 2011; Benner et al., 2002; Bradley, Doolittle, & Bartolotta, 2008).

Adolescent offenders with both E/BD and language problems struggle behaviorally, socially, and academically. Specifically, language challenges may be characterized by suboptimal pragmatics (e.g., taking turns in a conversation, not interrupting, or staying on a topic), vocabulary, and syntax (i.e., sentence structure; Sanger, Creswell, Dworak, & Schultz, 2000). Also, students may struggle with generating narratives and using comprehension strategies. For example, attempting to tell their experiences during forensic interviews can be problematic and is linked back to poor narrative skills (Snow, Powell, & Sanger, 2012). Though pragmatic aspects of language are important considerations, this article will focus on other aspects of language (i.e., vocabulary and figurative language).

It is unknown whether correctional educators and other personnel within the juvenile justice system understand how language and communication problems overlap with E/BD. Though this need is unknown, a synthesis of recommended practices is valuable to support the needs of students who continue to struggle to learn and communicate. Therefore, it is important that correctional educators have resources with suggestions to support students' language and communication skills. This is particularly the case for students with co-occurring behavior and language problems. Often, language problems are overlooked, as behavior becomes the primary focus. If behavior is addressed but language skills are ignored, this may negatively impact student progress. Though it is recognized that the best-case scenario is to utilize the expertise of speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and other team members to plan a comprehensive program and address language intervention (Ehren, 2009), these services are often unavailable.

This article provides correctional educators with ideas to improve juvenile offenders' language skills, while considering behavioral intervention strategies. We will describe how aspects of language can be very challenging for students with co-occurring E/BD and language problems and illustrate how language-based interventions can be incorporated into addressing three common behavior management techniques. This article will also describe nine language-based literacy suggestions that correctional educators can use to enhance social interactions and academic performance, while targeting behavior management techniques. We conducted a review of the research to establish the best evidence-based practices for correctional educators and practitioners to utilize when serving adolescent offenders.


Computerized databases including Academic Search Premier, PsycINFO, EBSCO, and ERIC were searched using the terms adolescent offenders, juvenile offenders, correctional educators, behavioral strategies, and language intervention services. …

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