Date of Award


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Education, Ed.D.



First Advisor

Ellyn Arwood

LC Subjects

Children--Language--Social aspects; Language acquisition; Moral development


Moral development in youth is of importance to both researchers and to educational professionals seeking to shape the pro-social moral development of young people. This study investigated a new theory of moral development based on literature from neuroscience, linguistics, and cognitive psychology. The purpose of this study was to research functional language acquisition’s potential as an antecedent to the development of pro-social moral development among a purposeful sample of alternative school students. This study answered four questions: What gaps, if any, exist between typical language development and the language development of the participants of the study as measured by a functional language sampling assessment? Given a picture of a social event with shared activities, will the participants make pro-social or antisocial connections among the agents? When cartooning to visually represent a participant’s understanding of possible moral transgressions, does the participant’s drawing and writing show a social, cognitive, and/or a language gap between what the participant draws and writes and what the participant tells about the concepts? Will participants show a difference in language function when the task requires higher and/or lower levels of cognition?

To answer these questions, language samples were gathered from study participants using a verbal prompt, shared referent (pictures), and cartooning. Participants were ten alternative school students. Four students with significant behavior problems comprised the Core Group. Five of their higher achieving peers comprised the Comparison Group. An additional student with significant behavior and academic issues provided a Confirmation Case. All of the students in the study were found to have pre-language levels of language function across all tasks. Further, none of the students made consistently pro-social connections in their stories for agents depicted in APRICOT I and APRICOT II pictures. Students’ cartooned stories showed gaps between their cartooning and what they said orally.

This study suggests alternative school students may have significant functional language deficits and that the behavioral programs at such schools fail to provide students the pro-social moral concepts needed for pro-social moral development. Additionally, they may benefit from the introduction of opportunities for functional language acquisition rarely offered by current curricula.


Copyright for this work is retained by the author.

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