What did you say?
One of the most frustrating stages in a child’s development is during the toddler years when they’re learning to speak. Toddlers have the tools to talk but their language skills haven’t quite gotten to where what they want to say is heard correctly. They know what they’re trying to say but the adults around them just aren’t “getting” them. This causes frustration and irritation on both sides. What can be done to ease both baby and parents through this difficult time? The answer: Baby Sign Language.
Joseph Garcia is the man credited with bringing awareness to the development of Baby Sign Language. He began studying American Sign Language (ASL) in 1975 and eventually became a Certified Interpreter. Through his observations during his thesis, he noticed children of deaf parents learned to communicate with signs a lot sooner than hearing children did with oral communication.
During his research in 1986, he had a multitude of resources on deaf children and deaf parents and how these children develop their communication skills; however, he found very little about hearing children with deaf parents or deaf siblings. He got several hearing families to volunteer to try using signing with their hearing children. What he discovered was children who are exposed to signing from infancy learn to use the signs as young as six or seven months old!
Over the next 20 years, he’d go on publish several books, videos and multimedia tools for parents seeking a way to open the communication lines with their children – deaf, hearing or for those children who are simply unable to communicate verbally. Today, his methods are utilized all over the world.
As Garcia shows through his work, and many parents have gratefully discovered, if a child can learn to communicate what they want without temper tantrums or screaming, everyone – parents, children and anyone who is in contact with the child – benefits. Here are a few:
(1) Less frustration: It isn’t difficult to learn or teach signing but, like any new skill, there will need to be patience and perseverance on both sides. Martha Fard started using signs with her son, Sean, when he was about eight months. “I spent a lot of energy trying to understand what he wanted,” she says. “and it frustrated both him and me. It seemed his patience trying to make me understand him grew thinner each day. I attribute his impatience with my own frustration. A friend told me [Baby Signing] was great and that it’s so helpful knowing what her child wanted.”
Starting with a simple sign a good place to start. “Sean was about 11 months when he started copying the signs. At first he’d just watch us use the signs then after about three weeks started using other signs he’d been shown.”
In addition, learning Baby Signing is almost like a reward for the child. The first time they use a sign, are understood and get what they want with no screaming or yelling, they’ll feel empowered, which will encourage them to keep using the signs and to learn new ones.
(2) Another Way To Bond: Not only is it a way to talk to each other, it’s also a way to bond in a way some parents haven’t gotten the chance to. Katie Ferraro’s son, Frankie, isn’t able to speak. Katie has found signing has brought her closer to her son: “Frankie is basically non-verbal and was diagnosed with autism at 18 months. In-home therapists taught him a few signs (such as Me, More, All done, Play, eat and drink) but he wouldn’t use them at first. He’d scream until he got what he wanted. Recently, he’s started using the Baby Signing and it’s allowed me finally to communicate with my child. He’s using the signs well and there’s a lot less screaming and frustration and it’s brought us much closer.”
Plus, children will feel a new sense of closeness when they can use a sign to “talk” about something they see when out with a parent and the parent understands and responds.
(3) Helping to Learn Language: Garcia has stated that using this tool is a way to enhance language, not replace it. Andrea Sands’ father, John Weibe, was worried his granddaughter wouldn’t try to speak if she learned to sign: “At first, I made fun of Andrea for even considering [Baby Signing]. But then our granddaughter started using the signs and we could talk to her and understand one another. But, then I worried she’d never talk. What’s the point in talking if you can “talk” in another way?”
This is a common concern; however, when the child is learning the signs, they are face to face with the parent. The word is spoken at the same time they sign them so the child can learn the spoken word and associate it with the gesture and sign.
How It Works
Like any new skill to be learned, especially when working with children, the atmosphere should be positive, upbeat and fun. Most importantly, go at the child’s pace or they’ll end up getting frustrated. According to Garcia, the best time to start Baby Signing is when the child is starting to show an interest in communication – around nine or ten months when they’re babbling, making verbal sounds and generally trying to be sociable.
Next, start with a very simple sign like, “drink”. Every time you use the word, show the child the sign too so they’ll learn to associate. Use a lot of repetition and variation in using the word as this is how children learn. For example, if the child wants some juice say: “You want a drink? Let’s get you a drink. Here’s your drink.” And use the Baby Signing each time. It may take days or weeks…just be patient! A child will pick up a lot faster if they’re having fun and see that you are having fun too.
Sign Of The Times
Garcia’s methods have spread quickly all over the world and now many Canadian families are benefiting from learning this useful tool. There are many books, videos and other multimedia tools at the local library or can be found online. Many provinces hold workshops and classes and, for special needs children like Frankie, Occupational Therapists and Speech Therapists are now learning how to sign with children to assist them to communicate when they’ve never been able to before.
My oldest daughter, Jaimie, has Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID) and didn’t speak until she was well over two. When she finally did start speaking, she still had an extremely difficult time communicating what she needed and wanted. Even now, she gets angry and frustrated – at herself for not being able to say what she wants to and at us for not understanding her.
I only wish I knew about this valuable tool four years ago to make her life a little less stressful. All children want to reach out to us and be understood. How awesome is it that Joseph Garcia picked up on this and we can now give the gift of words to all children.
Simple Signs to Try
There are two versions of the signing: One is Garcia’s version which is based on ASL. The second, “Baby Signs”, was created by psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, which is more simple gestures to use with babies.
Using these two versions as a base, you can even make up your own gestures as long as they get your point across. Here are a few to try:
“food” – put your fingertips to your lips
“hot” – put your hand out and withdraw it back quickly (like you touched something hot.
“me” – point to yourself
“car” – pretend to drive a car
“book” – put palms together then pretend to open them – like the pages of a book
“drink” – put thumb to bottom lip then pretend to put cup to your lips