The frustration brought on by the inability to communicate with a trantruming tot is enough to drive any parent to rocking themselves in the corner. The advent and popularity of teaching sign language to hearing children has helped rid many households of these dreaded moments. With a little persistence and practice, parents can acquire the skills to communicate with their pre-verbal youngsters.
The development of scientific research involving hearing-abled babies and sign language spans over two decades. Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn are leading researchers in this field and co-founders of Baby Signs, a prominent sign language program for babies (others include My Smart Hands and Signing Time). They first began their work in 1985, when Dr. Acredolo discovered that her infant daughter, Kate, spontaneously created her own gestures for various objects. From there, the team researched the connection between symbolic gestures, including American Sign Language (ASL), with the development of verbal language in hearing children.
In a later study funded by the National Institute for Health, Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn demonstrated the many benefits of teaching sign language to infants. Babies and toddlers who communicated with signs showed a reduction in frustration and in aggressive behaviors. They also found that the enhanced communication helped parents to become more responsive to their children’s needs. When the children in the study were evaluated years later, the doctors found that those who had the benefit of early sign language scored higher on IQ tests than their non-signing peers. (However, that could simply be the result of parents interacting more with their infants, necessary when teaching them signing; strong parent-child interaction has long been associated with increased IQ scores.)
different kids, different needs
Long before Baby Signs and their like emerged on the scene, sign language became a part of Andrea Read’s life. The Uptown mother of two girls, Kaylee, three, and Samantha, two, says that she started using sign language after seeing Linda Bove sign on Sesame Street. Andrea and her four siblings decided to learn the alphabet and a few other signs so that they could communicate during church. Their mother even picked up a few signs so she could reprimand them silently when they were misbehaving.
When Andrea entered college, she took four semesters of sign language and started working with deaf children. One of her ASL teachers encouraged her to sign with her own daughter, Kaylee, when she was six months old. “My daughter saw me signing and started imitating me,” says Andrea. Kaylee’s enjoyment of learning new signs encouraged Andrea to continue teaching her daughter more sign language.
Andrea introduced sign language to Kaylee by signing the words to songs. They progressed to naming fruits and they practiced the signs every time they went to the grocery store. Later, she started showing her daughter Signing Time! DVDs. Kaylee still loves to sign and enjoys teaching new words to Samantha, her younger sister.
Learning sign language can also be a helpful tool for children with special needs. Tara Takas of New Orleans, mother to Sydney Rose, credits sign language for making their daily lives better. Sydney was diagnosed with Down Syndrome when she was four months old. At 19 months, her speech was delayed due to her disability and she spoke only three words. Sydney’s speech therapist suggested the use of sign language to assist in communication and getting Sydney to talk.
“We would work on simple words that we used every day. It wasn’t long before she was signing ‘more,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘all done,’” says Tara. “We made it as fun as we could to keep her engaged, and rewarded her.”
When Tara’s second daughter, Alexis Louise, arrived, she was able to parlay her experience with sign language into teaching it to her new baby. “Don’t be discouraged if they don’t pick it up quickly,” suggests Tara, “and don’t get too hung up on the exact sign. Like any baby language, they may modify it to fit their needs, like saying ‘nana’ for ‘banana.’’
Some parents have concerns that teaching their babies sign language will discourage them from learning to talk. The opposite appears true. Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn’s found that 24-month-olds who were taught sign language as babies had a more advanced verbal vocabulary than their non-signing counterparts and that they composed significantly longer sentences. (That, however, could be because parents dedicated to helping their babies communicate more effectively also are more apt to focus on overall language development, which includes consistently communicating with them verbally, as well, throughout infancy and toddlerhood.)
when to start signing
For parents who are interested in teaching their babies to sign, it’s never too early to start. The American Sign Language website (www.aslpro.com) contains videos of over 11,000 signs and features an “ASL for Babies” dictionary. Many brands of DVDs and home programs are available as well. For instant feedback and the chance to connect with other moms and dads, there are Baby Signs and My Smart Hands sign language classes available in New Orleans.
Lindsey Harrison has always loved babies and signing. She earned a degree in American Sign Language from Delgado Community College and also worked as a nanny for eight years before becoming a certified independent instructor through Baby Signs. She offers two types of classes: a six-week group class which meets for one hour a week and is filled with signing, singing, and dancing; and a one-time workshop popular with overly scheduled parents. Lindsey believes that children between the ages of six months and two and a half years will get the most out of her classes. Children with special needs may benefit at more advanced ages.
The instructor recommends that parents attend the classes both for the signing and for the community that they build. Lindsey notes that babies improve their signing abilities through socialization. “When they see other babies doing the same thing, they will want to do it also” she adds.
Introducing sign language to babies has proved beneficial to developing the cognitive abilities of pre-verbal and verbal children. Sign language is also a valuable method of communicating with and educating special needs children. Whether a child is able to sign dozens of words or just two or three, the ability to communicate their needs significantly reduces frustration and tantrums. This can make a happier home for everyone.
Kelly Leahy, mom to two daughters, is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to nola baby & family.