Psychosocial deprivation and receptive language ability

Humphreys smiling

A new paper* authored by Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member Kathryn L. Humphreys, Ph.D.,  reports experiences of psychosocial deprivation may have long-lasting consequences for receptive language ability, extending to age 18 years. Receptive language is an essential element in communication and is important for social-emotional development including the development of social skills, quality friendships, and emotional competence. The study was published in the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders as part of an IDDRC** special thematic series focused on the impact of the environment on neurodevelopmental disorders.


The quality of early caregiving experiences is a known contributor to the quality of the language experiences young children receive. What is unknown is whether, and if so, how psychosocial deprivation early in life is associated with long-lasting receptive language outcomes.


Two prospective longitudinal studies examining early psychosocial deprivation/neglect in different contexts (i.e., deprivation due to institutional care or deprivation experienced by children residing within U.S. families) and receptive language as assessed via the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) were used to assess the magnitude of these associations. First, 129 participants from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, a randomized controlled trial of foster care as an alternative to institutional care in Romania, completed a receptive language assessment at age 18 years. Second, from the U.S., 3,342 participants from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study were assessed from infancy until middle childhood.


Children exposed to early institutional care, on average, had lower receptive language scores than their never-institutionalized counterparts in late adolescence. While randomization to an early foster care intervention had no long-lasting association with PPVT scores, the duration of childhood exposure to institutional care was negatively associated with receptive language. Psychosocial deprivation in U.S. families was also negatively associated with receptive language longitudinally, and this association remained statistically significant even after accounting for measures of socioeconomic status.


Experiences of psychosocial deprivation may have long-lasting consequences for receptive language ability, extending to age 18 years. Psychosocial deprivation is an important prospective predictor of poorer receptive language. The present findings add to a growing literature tracing the long-term outcomes of children who experience varying levels of deprivation.

Courtney Taylor is director of VKC Communications.

Pictured top of page: Kathryn L. Humphreys, Ph.D.

*Humphreys, K.L., Machlin, L.S., Guyon-Harris, K.L. et al. Psychosocial deprivation and receptive language ability: a two-sample study. J Neurodevelop Disord 12, 36 (2020).

**Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center

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