Extreme prematurity and behavioral problems: When is it a problem?

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We know that children born extremely preterm (less than 27 weeks gestational age) are at risk for a whole host of developmental problems, including cognitive, language, motor, and feeding delays, but the relationship between these delays and behavior problems are not well studied…yet. In this study, authors tried to better understand the relationship between global development (using the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development – III) and behavior problems (using the Child Behaviors Checklist, CBCL) in more than one thousand toddlers born extremely preterm.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that toddlers with a higher total behavior score (meaning more problems) were more likely to have lower cognitive, language, and motor scores. But some types of behavioral problems weren’t significant after researchers controlled for certain different factors.

Behaviors that were categorized as externalizing, anxiety, attention/hyperactivity, and oppositional defiant only had a statistically significant relationship with low cognitive and/or language scores before researchers adjusted for socio-economic factors. On the other hand, internalizing, affective, pervasive developmental, and total behavior scores were all correlated with lower cognitive, language and motor scores even after the researchers controlled for things like socio-economic factors, medical diagnoses and sex. 

That means if you’ve got a little one on your caseload that was born before 27 weeks gestation, these behavior categories (internalizing, affective, pervasive developmental, and total behaviors*) should set off red flags for you!

Now, the authors acknowledge that we still aren’t sure if these behavior issues cause developmental delays or the other way around (or maybe they both feed off of each other in a vicious cycle), but including a measure of behavior in your evaluations could help you describe behaviors more accurately, determine how at-risk a given toddler is and set goals that are truly impactful for the family. For more on assessing risk in preterm infants, see our previous reviews here, here, and here.

*If the names for behavior types from the CBCL are a bit confusing, it might help to know that they are aligned with DSM-5 criteria for corresponding diagnoses. Or you can get more information from the CBCL manual.

Lowe, J. R., Fuller, J. F., Do, B. T., Vohr, B. R., Das, A., Hintz, S. R., Watterberg, K. L., & Higgins, R. D. (2019). Behavioral problems are associated with cognitive and language scores in toddlers born extremely preterm. Early Human Development. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2018.11.007

Language delay and behavior problems: How can we help?

It’s not much of a surprise to EI SLPs that language problems and behavior problems can be pretty intertwined (e.g., here), and parenting style can be associated with both behavior and language outcomes. We also know that well-designed parent-implemented interventions can be wonderfully effective (they had better be if entire states are re-vamping their early intervention programs to promote the coaching model). So—can we support these things simultaneously?

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Garcia et al. implemented the Infant Behavior Program (IBP) with a group of mother–child pairs. The Infant Behavior Program was adapted from the Child-Directed Interaction (CDI) component of Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). Programs like PCIT and Triple P- Positive Parenting Program have been shown to help children reduce negative behaviors, but no one has really studied what how (or if) those parent implemented behavior interventions affect language development. While PCIT training and certification is geared toward mental health professionals, the components of CDI and IBP will sound familiar to EI SLPs. The intervention guides parents to interact with their children using positive parenting skills, avoiding negative parenting skills, and ignoring unwanted behavior, and consisted of 5–7 weekly visits of 60–90 minutes. Parents were then asked to continue using the taught parenting skills in 5-minute increments throughout the day.

“Do” (Positive parenting skills)

  • Imitating

  • Describing

  • Reflecting

“Don’t” (Negative parenting skills)

  • Negative talk

  • Questions

  • Commands

Researchers found that change in parenting style was associated with an increase in the children’s total number of utterances. (Note: this effect was seen at six months after the intervention ended; the kids didn’t show a difference in total number of utterances at three months, or number of different utterances at either time they were tested). But the authors cautioned that presence of negative parenting skills did not change the toddlers’ number of utterances for better or for worse, so definitely don’t interpret this to mean we should throw out questions and commands.

So if an EI SLP is called in on a case where both language and behavior are concerns, but parent priority is behavior, maybe we start with those “positive” responsive techniques (labeling, imitating, and reflecting) before we jump in with questions and commands, because it looks like these positive behavior strategies can also help with language development!

 

Garcia, D., Hungerford, G. M., Hills, R. M., Barroso, N. E., & Bagner, D. M. (2019). Infant language production and parenting skills: A randomized controlled trial. Behavior Therapy. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2018.09.003