The Interplay of Children’s Temperament and Language Assessment: Understanding the Impact of Shyness


Children’s temperament plays a significant role in shaping their responses to the environment around them. Their temperament influences not only what they interact with but also the nature of their interaction. It has a profound effect on what and how they learn and how to assess that learning.

At the same time, children’s behavior and learning are also shaped by the environment. This dynamic interaction between temperament and the environment becomes especially important when it comes to language assessment, where the style of tasks and settings can vary widely. By the time children are nearly two years old, they have developed a robust vocabulary.

However, for them to demonstrate their knowledge of words effectively, a combination of their temperament, the environment, and the task at hand must align to support their ability to express that knowledge in a given moment.

The central focus of this study is to delve into how temperament, particularly shyness, influences children’s responses to a series of language assessment tasks. Different types of vocabulary and methodological tasks have diverse demands, particularly in terms of the level of social interaction they require.

This variability in tasks may significantly impact a child’s performance, potentially leading to incongruent conclusions about their vocabulary. The critical question at hand is the extent to which a child’s temperament, in combination with the task constraints, should be considered to obtain a valid and reliable measure of vocabulary.

Shyness: A Facet of Temperament

Shyness, as a facet of temperament, is defined as the experience of distress and tension within social situations, characterized by apprehension, awkwardness, or self-consciousness. Shy children exhibit an “approach-avoidance conflict,” where they desire social interaction but are inhibited by their social fears.

Shyness is distinct from broader dimensions of temperament like effortful control or surgency, as it specifically pertains to a child’s approach/avoidance in social interactions. It’s important to differentiate shyness from social anxiety, which is an extreme form of shyness, and introversion, as shyness combines elements of both introversion and neuroticism.

The development of shyness is influenced by various factors, including parental interactions, peer interactions, sex differences, and other environmental experiences.

Shyness begins to manifest at a very young age. In infancy, it appears as anxiety, discomfort, and fearfulness of novel or uncertain scenarios, particularly in the presence of strangers. As children grow, shyness evolves to manifest as behavioral inhibition in social situations, especially as they reach adolescence.

During their second year of life, children develop a sense of self and an understanding of social behavioral standards. This development enables them to experience self-conscious emotions and anxiety over the evaluation by other people.

This period of emerging shyness often overlaps with the rapid development of children’s language skills. Several temperament types, such as positive emotionality, attention, and social orientation, are associated with larger vocabulary size. Conversely, shyness is related to poorer language skills, leading to shyer children speaking less or being generally quieter.

Research supports this relationship, showing that shy children tend to speak less in unfamiliar situations. Shyness is particularly relevant to language development because it may hinder a child’s ability to interact effectively with others.

The Impact of Shyness on Language Assessment

Certain contexts may hinder shy children’s language use more than others due to their reticence in novel situations, especially those that involve social interactions. Research supports this notion, suggesting that shyness negatively influences children’s performance on language assessments or tests in various settings.

Shy children are less likely to identify the correct novel object as a referent of a novel label when compared to less shy children. Additionally, they tend to score lower on receptive and expressive language tasks compared to sociable children. Shyer children typically speak less, with shorter utterances, and perform poorly on language assessments, especially in expressive language assessments.

However, it’s essential to explore whether these findings stem from the socially demanding circumstances of language assessments or from poorer language skills. No studies have examined multiple types of assessments with social interaction as the key element of examination. Moreover, most temperament research has been conducted with children in preschool or older age groups, while language learning begins much earlier. Thus, examining younger populations may offer valuable insights.

The “I Know It but Won’t Say It” Model

One hypothesis that attempts to explain the relationship between shyness and language is the “I know it but won’t say it” model. This hypothesis suggests that shy children struggle to perform on language tasks not because they lack linguistic abilities but because their shyness inhibits them from demonstrating their knowledge.

This theory aligns with the anxiety-performance hypothesis, which posits that shyness frequently occurs in novel environments and evaluative settings, especially among unfamiliar individuals. In the context of language assessment, the social demands of the task may exacerbate children’s shyness and subsequently affect their performance.

Research supports this, with evidence that shy children perform much better on vocabulary tests in group environments compared to one-on-one, face-to-face conditions.

The evidence, including the fact that shy children perform better on receptive language tasks compared to expressive language tasks, suggests that less social tasks may lead to better performance for shy children. It is possible that shyness does not inhibit language development but that social elements prevent shy children from demonstrating their linguistic abilities within the frame of assessments and tests.

Variability Across Types of Language Assessments

Accurate assessment of speech and communication disorders is critical for children’s success and the work of clinicians. However, assessments vary significantly in the degree of social interaction required, which can differentially impact performance and the validity of such assessments.

Current standardized language assessments and tests encompass a wide range of measurements, including expressive and receptive language skills, vocabulary size, and novel word learning abilities. Some assessments rely on speech samples and naturalistic conversations, which necessitate significant social interaction between the child and the administrator. Shy children, due to their apprehension towards unfamiliar situations, may be less likely to socially interact with the administrator during these tasks, even if they possess strong language skills.

One assessment method that is particularly low in social demands is looking-based tasks. A well-known example is the Intermodal Preferential Looking Procedure (IPLP), which assesses vocabulary comprehension without requiring children to indicate their understanding through purposeful actions.

Instead, children are shown two images side by side and are told a word that matches one of the images. Their eye movements are then recorded to determine which image they looked at for a longer period. Looking-based tasks have been found to reliably measure vocabulary comprehension across various age groups and demographic profiles. However, drop-out rates among children remain a concern in this method.

Many vocabulary tests and word learning tasks require more social interaction from children compared to looking-based tasks. For instance, pointing or reaching methods require children to point to or select an item that matches the linguistic stimulus. Shy children, who often struggle with interactive behaviors, may find receptive language tasks or assessments more challenging than less shy children.

A study by Gurteen and colleagues found that children performed better at preferential looking measures but more poorly at preferential reaching tasks, indicating that the type of task plays a role in performance differences. It is unclear how temperament influences these performance variations.

A third, more socially demanding approach for assessing children’s linguistic abilities is through expressive means that require them to verbalize their responses. Expressive language skills can be measured through assessments and naturalistic observations of children’s conversations and speech with adults.

Because linguistic tests are typically conducted face-to-face and require social interaction with unfamiliar individuals, the social nature of the environment can interact with children’s shyness, potentially hindering their performance. It is crucial to differentiate between measuring children’s competence and their performance, especially in interpreting the results of language tasks.

The Aim of the Current Study

The primary goal of the current study is to address the complex interplay between children’s temperament, specifically shyness, and language assessment tasks. This research aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of how different types of language assessment tasks, which vary in the degree of social interaction required, affect children’s performance, especially those who exhibit shyness as a prominent facet of their temperament.

By exploring the impact of shyness on language assessment across various task types, the study will contribute to our understanding of how shyness influences children’s ability to demonstrate their linguistic competence. Ultimately, the research aims to shed light on the nuanced relationship between children’s temperament, the task environment, and language assessment, offering insights that can inform the development of more accurate and fair assessments for all children, regardless of their temperamental traits.

This study will help bridge the gap between the field of child development and language assessment, enhancing our ability to support children’s language development effectively.


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