Compared to typically developing children, children with developmental language disorder (DLD) have similar IQ levels but their language abilities are far below the average level. About 7 in 100 children have DLD and many experience related social communicative problems. Social and communication skills (SCS) are assumed to be acquired predominantly through implicit learning processes. Implicit learning (IL) refers to incidental or playful learning that leads to knowledge that one is not consciously aware of. This type of learning is believed to be distinct from explicit learning.
Children’s SCS skills are vital for a lifetime of healthy interactions with other children and adolescents, and are conditional for full participation in our society. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop evidence-based tailored interventions to enhance these skills for children with DLD. Up to now, there are little effective interventions available for children with DLD in the social-communicative domain. More importantly, it is also unclear whether or not these interventions should incorporate an explicit or implicit learning approach. This knowledge hiatus obviously hampers the development of tailored interventions in organizations that provide specialized care to children with DLD, such as Kentalis, Auris and NDSDK. This project aims to acquire more knowledge on the design of such interventions that will advance our understanding of effective social communicative learning approaches in these children.
The Procedural Deficiency Hypothesis (PDH) states that problems with SCS in children with DLD are largely based on a reduced IL capacity. However, there is no unequivocal empirical evidence for this claim. This hypothesis is largely based on laboratory tasks that may not give a pure estimate of IL. There is also a lack of data on the relationship between performance on these tasks and SCS in daily life. The first aim of this project is to compare the performance of children with DLD and children with a typical development (TD) on a relatively new laboratory task measuring IL capacity. The second aim is to test the relationship between performance on this task and existing measures of SCS in daily life. For goal one and two, 48 children with DLD and 48 typically developing children, between 10 and 12 years old, will be recruited. Most importantly, the third goal is to evaluate the new IL paradigm as a possible intervention technique for increasing SCS in children with DLD. For this, we will target the ability to recognize emotional facial expressions. This skill is an important prerequisite for social competence and social adaptation. For goal three, children with DLD will be approached. Each child will be randomly assigned to one of three intervention conditions: an implicit learning condition, an explicit learning condition, or a combined implicit/explicit condition. Hence, the effectiveness of the new intervention will be compared to more traditional interventions based on explicit instruction and explicit learning, and to a combined approach with both implicit and explicit elements.
In addition to new theoretical information about the role of IL in SCS in DLD-children, this project provides evidence for the feasibility of using the new task as diagnostic instrument for assessing IL capacity in DLD and of new treatment strategies that are (partly) based on this form of learning. The question of the degree of IL deficiencies in children with DLD is still largely open. However, a more definitive answer can serve to validate the PDH and, most importantly, it can motivate the implementation of interventions aimed at reducing SCS problems based on IL. Such interventions are more in line with the automatic and effortless way in which these skills are acquired in TD. Notably, even in the case of a reduced IL capacity, children with DLD could still benefit from an approach that makes use of remaining IL capacities. Moreover, using both explicit (learning by instruction) and implicit intervention techniques in combination may lead to an outcome that transcends the outcome of each individual strategy (a synergistic effect).
The current project contributes to the multi-year ‘Deelkracht TOS’ (DLD age 5-18+) program (2020-2022) in which the three care organizations are united by contributing to the development of evidence-based interventions (EBI’s) zooming in on children’s SCS. Moreover, in this project we will focus on sharing knowledge both with the community of practitioners working in specialized care and education with children with DLD in the Netherlands and with the scientific community. Importantly, experiential experts will be actively invited to share their knowledge and experience on social communicative development in DLD and social communicative training and treatment. In this way, experiential knowledge can be shared and applied to develop learning approaches that line up to DLD children’s needs and experience world.