Friday, April 08, 2011

Signs of the Time

The desire for enrichment classes geared towards babies and toddlers has become very popular in the United States. One of these lessons is teaching sign language to babies and children – some as young as 6 months, and in some cases even younger! The demand for baby-signing videos and classes has gone up over 200 percent in the last few years. Signing for infants and toddlers offers a way for parents to communicate with children who are too young to communicate vocally. It also provides a way for the infants and toddlers to express wants and needs that parents and care givers would otherwise have to guess at in response to crying.

I signed with my day care children, as well as with my older two children. Then, my third child came along in February of 2007, and I began working on signs with him at birth. Like an increasing number of parents, I wanted to make the most of my infant’s natural urge to communicate — capitalizing on a window of opportunity in which infants can gesture long before they are able to talk. Thanks to our early signing work, he produced his first sign before he reached six months of age! By 18 months, he had a vocabulary of 200 signed and spoken words. He also used multiple 2-5 word sentences. Because of my son’s accomplishments, I now know that, in hindsight, I should have started with my older two from birth. Even though they were both early speakers, using signs with them would have ended a lot of frustration on both our parts, as well as opened up a whole new world of communication!

Infants naturally gesture – it’s a normal part of any baby’s development. Even without prompting, a baby offered food when he is not hungry might shake his head vigorously; a baby whose mother leaves the house might wave her hand. By actively teaching their pre-verbal babies to express themselves with sign language, parents are taking such gesturing a step further. For example, babies could learn to ask for a book by placing their hands together (palm to palm) and then opening the hands while maintaining contact between the pinkie fingers. They could also teach them to ask for food by rubbing their tummies. These are both examples of American Sign Language gestures. Some baby-signing programs recommend using only gestures from American Sign Language; others believe children should be allowed to create their own gestures. Babies exposed to true ASL signs regularly from an early age can generally begin using them effectively by 6 - 9 months, or even younger — well before they can say them, much sooner than those who use other gestures, and even sooner then those who used no signs what so ever.

Advocates of ASL believe that true signs are easy for babies to learn and that they offer the additional benefit of being widely known and understood. Using ASL allows your child to learn another accepted language, just as you want them to speak their native language correctly. You probably wouldn’t teach your baby made up words for things, and the same principle applies to made up signs. Look for programs that only use ASL if you want your child to have the highest level of benefits.

Signing provides children with far more than just rudimentary communication skills. Signing can improve a baby’s intellect, increase self-esteem and happiness, reduce fussiness and temper tantrums, improve problem-solving skills, and help toddlers get along better with each other. It also strengthens the bond between parent and child, as you are able to communicate effectively with your baby. Signing has also been proven to enhance early language and literacy skills, enabling children to speak sooner and develop larger vocabularies. Some even attribute significant increases in IQ to early signing. Signing with children with special needs is also very beneficial. Since many children with special needs will have trouble speaking for quite some time, teaching them to sign will lessen the chances of tantrums and frustration (on both sides!). Many parents with special needs children, especially those with children with Downs Syndrome, Autism, and Apraxia, have said that their child learned to sign and it inspired a language explosion, much sooner than they would have expected one.

When looking for a sign class for your child, make sure to look for the following items:

• ASL background of the instructor(s)
• The program is American Sign Language based, and not mere gestures
• Past class participant satisfaction
• Instructor(s) education level
• Whether or not the instructor has had success with their own child(ren)

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