Behavioural, emotional and social difficulties in individuals with a history of Specific language impairment (SLI)

Research background

 It is believed that 40% of children identified with language impairments experience persistent language difficulties that for some individuals continue into adulthood. However, not only do children with SLI experience language difficulties, but also have associated behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD). Whilst there is research pointing to the presence of BESD in individuals with SLI, much less is known about the developmental trajectories of their difficulties. This study  examines the longitudinal development of BESD in children with a history of SLI over 9 years and investigates how language and reading abilities relate to the developmental course of other difficulties. 


We expected that overall BESD would decrease from childhood to adulthood. Whilst the global measure of total difficulties decreased from age 7 to age 16, the results were not statistically significant.

  • This lack of a significant difference in the overall measure may be due to the distinct developmental trajectories observed for specific areas of functioning.

    • Behavioural difficulties in terms of hyperactivity and conduct problems decreased from childhood to adolescence as did  emotional problems. However,  difficulties in peer relations increased over the 9 year period.

In SLI, behavioural, emotional and social problems are not associated with equally strong developmental trajectories. 

  • Behavioural difficulties are more prevalent in childhood but decrease to general population levels by adolescence.

  • A decrease was also observed for emotional difficulties, yet they still remained above population norms.

  • Difficulties in peer relations were found to be the most developmentally vulnerable area of functioning in individuals with SLI.  Peer problems increased from childhood to adolescence as well as the proportion of individuals functioning in the impaired range. Thus, SLI appears to be strongly associated with peer difficulties across development.

BESD scores were generally in the sub-clinical range, higher than expected in the typical population but lower than the mean impairment threshold. This suggests individuals with SLI, in general, are not exhibiting difficulties which alert professionals to the need for referral. This may mean that in practice at least some individuals with a history of SLI are living with difficulties for which they are not receiving support.

Language, reading and BESD:

Early language abilities and reading skills exerted different types of influence on BESD. 

  • Early reading accuracy skills were only developmentally predictive of behaviour problems. Severity of early reading accuracy difficulties were associated with hyperactivity and conduct problems.

  • Early reading accuracy skills were not associated with emotional problems or difficulties in peer relations. 

  • Oral language abilities appeared to be more intricately associated with the development of BESD, although the pattern was not identical for each of the three aspects of language studied (pragmatic abilities, expressive language and receptive language)

Increasing difficulties with peer relations observed in the young people with a history of SLI may at least be in part due to the central role of language in peer interactions during adolescents.


Project details

Researchers - Michelle C St Clair, Andrew Pickles, Kevin Durkin, Gina Conti-Ramsden

Location - University of Bath

Published - 2011


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