Before arriving at Temple’s College of Public Health to earn her doctoral degree, Maura O’Fallon worked as a speech-language pathologist in a school for children with behavioral issues. Now, the second-year doctoral student has received federal funding to explore connections between child behavior and language learning. O’Fallon has been awarded a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship, or F31 grant, from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Designed to strengthen research skills in predoctoral students, the grant will support a project examining early language learning in children ages 2 to 4. Specifically, O’Fallon is studying the impact of children’s behavioral profiles on their communicative responsiveness during parent-child interactions. The aim is to clarify the relationship between child behavior and early interaction quality, potentially producing guidance for parents and teachers as children learn language skills and pointing toward future research questions.
Previous experience “seeing kids whose behavior really impacted their functioning in academic and social environments,” inspired O’Fallon to study associations between behavioral issues and language learning. The connection isn’t straightforward. Language issues can influence behavior, and behavior challenges may impair learning opportunities.
“One thing I observed while working clinically was that during language-heavy tasks, for example a writing assignment or shared book reading activity, kids who struggled with language started acting out. They would engage in escape behaviors, maybe making jokes, getting distracted, tuning out,” O’Fallon says.
She is working on her dissertation project, “Relationship between Child Behavior and Early Language Interaction Quality,” out of the Language, Literacy and Learning Lab in the college’s Communication Sciences and Disorders Department. She will use data collected in a study by Rebecca Alper, director of the lab and O’Fallon’s dissertation advisor, which includes measures of child language and behavior, as well as recorded language interactions between parents and young children.
O’Fallon’s F31 application grew out of work she began in a doctoral class focused on creating grant proposals. “We received great feedback from our professors, Dr. Resa Jones and Dr. Carole Tucker, who both have extensive experience with writing and reviewing grants. As students, we also had the chance to share and peer review each other's work,” she says. “It was super helpful for me in crafting what was, eventually, a fundable project.”