Do Toddler Language Skills impact Social & Emotional Development? Absolutely!
We all know that language development in young children is important. Observing a prelinguistic communications, like waving bye-bye, or pointing to a toy, much like witnessing the first step, are treasured milestones. As parents we know intuitively that these actions mean our child is thinking about something and trying to communicate with us. When our toddler is developing normally we feel all is well. In normal development, you can assume that a first word will be coming along by one year of age and that by 18 months, a toddler will have anywhere from 20 – 100 words.
Communication encompasses the domains of speech (articulation, voice, fluency) and language (expressive/receptive language and pragmatic language). Pragmatics language is the ability to combine language components of form (phonology, morphology and syntax) and semantics (meaning of words and sentences) in “functional and socially appropriate ways to communicate” (ASHA, policy). So when we see our young children using gestures and first words in meaningful ways to communicate a need or draw attention to something, we sense that everything is okay.
As toddlers start to reach the 18 month and then 24 month stage, we should be able to see how speech and language use helps with self-regulation. Self-regulation can be defined as “a child’s ability to gain control of bodily functions, manage powerful emotions, and maintain focus and attention” (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). So self-regulation is closely tied to our ability to manage our responses and filter out interfering stimulation. These are the skills that help us learn to stay on task, take turns, and maintain a conversation. When we see a toddler who struggles with these skills when compared with their same age peers, we might surmise that they are having challenges with self-regulation. Parents may want to ask themselves – Are we modeling self-regulation by our actions and words? Hmmm…
Studies have revealed that language development impacts a toddler’s self-regulation skills, particularly at the age of 24 months. So if a child is struggling with certain aspects of speech and language development at this age, they are likely to have difficulties with self-regulation.
In the early 1900s, Vygotsky, a developmental psychologist, proposed that human psychological development emerged as a result of interpersonal connections and interactions with the social environment. His theory suggested that self-regulation of behaviors and thoughts developed as children internalized the words and observed thought patterns of their parents or caregivers’ speech. So the words young children hear and the context of their experiences shape the mental structures that help determine their own thoughts and behaviors. So the more language a young child understands and the more acceptable routines they observe, the better able they should be at developing appropriate self-regulation. You can see that self-regulation has everything to do with achieving good social skills. And good social relationships enhance emotional wellbeing. Young children must be able to attend to others and follow social rules to successfully “get along” or play with other children. Of course, we also know that actual sustained interactions with other children develops as a toddler moves through the “terrible twos”. But during this developmental period, a two to three year old is learning important rules and routines that will be foundational to good social and emotional adjustment as they continue through early childhood. It is very important for parents and caregivers to talk with infants and toddlers frequently throughout the day and to increase the complexity and expectations of understanding and compliance based on the developmental abilities of the child. As parents we need to be sure that we don’t limit quality talking and play routines, particularly with the “good baby” that seems to be content to be left alone with a toy or in front of a TV.
Research has found a strong correlation between expressive vocabulary and self-regulation skills at age 24 months. This is important when you recall Vgotsky’s theory regarding internalized structures for self-regulation being built on the words and verbal experiences of the young child. In normal speech development, we know that receptive vocabulary (what we understand about the meaning of a word or concept) develops before expressive language (what we actually say). So when we see that self-regulation is easier for a child with appropriate or enriched spoken vocabulary, we can assume that they have already internalized, in most cases, the meaning of the vocabulary they are using. Of course a child may give an adult’s words a more concrete meaning! I recall my father saying something “scared the living daylights” out of him. At the age of 4 years I wondered what a “living daylight” would look like coming out of my father and visualized something like fireworks! Again this is good support for conversing with and explaining our words to young children. With toddlers it is always good to use pictures and objects when talking about vocabulary. Describing the context of a picture or the object use is also very helpful. For example. “The yellow ducky is jumping in the water. Splash!”
Self-talk is another strategy that toddlers can use to help with self-regulation. This again is dependent on vocabulary and a mental understanding of words and phrases. We can model this for our children as well, when they see us saying quietly to ourselves, “I don’t need another cookie” or “I need to wash my hands before I eat my apple”, we are providing an example of thought processes for behavior regulation. Then of course, we need to follow through and not eat the cookie and wash our hands!
We have good evidence of the important connection between language development and self-regulation in young children. So as we have seen, modeling language and having frequent interactions with your infants and toddlers is critically important. More so because we know that they will have a greater chance of developing the skills necessary to be successful in social situations and with their peers if they have good speech, language and self-regulation skills. For many toddlers, using visuals and repetition within fun activities will be critical for learning vocabulary. Another great tool that is helpful for all children in developing self-regulation is the use of schedules and calendars. If they observe you using a schedule and you provide one for them, they start developing the concept of compartmentalizing time as well as an understanding of start and finish and what comes next: important skills for maintaining personal behavior.
But what do we do if our toddler is not developing an age-appropriate expressive vocabulary despite our best efforts, or if our child seems to be more prone to tantrums and frustration than we would expect for their age? It is critical to rule out any speech or language challenges that might be impacting your child’s communication. Chronic ear infections or hearing challenges can lead to childhood speech and language disorders. Children with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome or auditory processing challenges will also have difficulty with self-regulation since it is very difficult for them to map meaning onto words and phrases they hear. This auditory deficit will impede their ability to think in words and develop the internal structures used for self-regulation.
It is very important to discuss any language or behavior concerns you have with your pediatrician. A speech evaluation would be the best way of ruling out any early speech or language disorders that might be impacting your child’s ability to comprehend and develop language skills. Early intervention is critical for toddlers experiencing speech and language challenges. If you would like to talk to someone about your child we are here for you! Speech & Occupational Therapy of North Texas provides speech therapy in McKinney, Frisco and Murphy through our three clinic locations. Call us at 972-424-0148. We are network providers for most major insurance plans.
For more information about language development and self-regulation visit: