a woman speaks to her young child in a park

Children from low socioeconomic status (SES) households tend to show lower levels of language and communicative skills than those from higher SES homes at the group level. But these group-level findings provide limited information about the individual strengths and needs of families. A broad generalization suggesting low SES as a predictor of poor language learning can lead to stereotyping and obscure what parental interactions with children really do make a difference.

A new study from the College of Public Health’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders seeks to get past socioeconomic status as a predictor of language learning and isolate factors that are more directly modifiable than SES when parents and caregivers are helping children learn language.

“On an individual level, socioeconomic status is not a clinical indicator. Just because a child is in a home that would qualify as low SES does not mean that necessarily that they are getting low-quality early language experience,” says Rebecca Alper, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders and director of the Language, Literacy and Learning Lab, who led a team of students and colleagues in conducting the study. “I really think this paper has implications not only for practice and future research, but also from a social justice standpoint.” 

The paper, “Change the things you can: Modifiable parent characteristics predict high-quality early language interaction within socioeconomic status,” is newly published in the Journal Of Speech Language and Hearing Research.  Co-authors of the paper include current and former College of Public Health students Molly Beiting, Julia Jaen, Omer Levi, Michaela Peel and Catianne Robinson. 

“We know that early language interaction with children is super important for long-term academic, life and health outcomes,” Alper explains. “What we’re trying to do is to identify modifiable components that predict and support these high-quality interactions.”  

Mothers in low-income homes were surveyed to measure their self-efficacy (personal belief in their ability to impact their child’s growth and learning) and developmental knowledge (for example, knowing chronological age expectations for their child in different areas). Children’s language skills were assessed, and mothers’ everyday language interactions with children were observed via videos. 

The study found children whose mothers had high parenting self-efficacy tended to have higher language scores, but only when mothers also had high developmental knowledge. The data also revealed that mothers with higher self-efficacy responded more frequently to their children’s communication attempts than those with lower self-efficacy.

“We actually know a fair bit about what makes for high-quality language interaction,” Alper says. “We think about whether it is responsive to what the child is saying, doing, or interested in. For instance, if the child is pointing at a dog, and the parent says, ‘Oh, yes, there is the brown dog who lives next door. His name is Fido,’ that would be responsive. If the parent says, ‘No, we have to get in the car,’ that would not be a responsive utterance.” 

“So when we're supporting parents in interacting with their children, we need to look at variables associated with interaction quality that we can actually do something about,” Alper says.