Sign Language

Although sign language is commonly understood as the language only used by the "deaf" community, it has been long used within the speech therapy setting for use with typically hearing toddlers and children who are delayed in communication development.  children often use nonverbal gestures and signs before they begin to use words to communicate.  You may have seen your child lift his/her arms to request "up", or point to a glass of juice on the counter.  These are nonverbal methods of communicating a request, and often are universally used with children who are physically able to produce these gestures.  Thus, using a "formal" method of gestures which stand for words while the children is developing language, but unable to physically produce the complex sequence of sounds required for many words, is an excellent way of providing the child with a temporary form of communication until he/she can verbally produce the words.

As a speech/language pathologist, I have taught many children their first words through modeling both the verbal word along with a sign/gesture to highlight the information.  The child may not be able to say the word, but he/she often can sign it (or approximate the sign).  When a child begins to use signs, and we respond to the signs as if they used a spoken word, the communication cycle begins.  Also, the cycle of frustration often reduces.  "Bad Behavior" associated with inability to communicate is often times reduced.  Using a sign highlights the verbal production, thus it is good to say the word while you use the sign. 

Initially, you must watch your child first to see what he/she is interested in doing.  Then model the sign of the desired object/activity.  Arbitrarily signing will not serve a communicative function, but may seen more like "work" to the child.  This is a tool meant for enhancing communication!

I know how to sign!When "instructing" signs, it is best to MODEL it to the child.  Don't force the child into making it, rather let them watch you sign something, then WAIT for their attempt to imitate you.  You may be waiting up to 10 seconds.  If no sign imitation is used, model it again.  This time you may use a partner to stand behind your child and physically help your child produce the sign, or gently help the child make the sign, then give them what they requested.  Don't expect too much too fast from every child.  All children are different and learn at different rates.  It may take many models before the child begins to imitate.  It is always best if the child can do the sign for him/herself.  Children can sometimes become too dependent on the communicating partner to teach/help them, and not do for themselves.  Thus, the waiting period before helping the child is VERY important. It is also important to note that I generally do not expect a child to make a sign "perfectly".  They may make an approximation of the sign, and that is ok as long as it is consistent.

Also, you may model many signs throughout the day, but try to expect only what your child is able to produce in return.  You may model 10 signs, but expect the child to only imitate one if that is all he/she is capable of doing. Remember to model signs only when your child is looking at you! It may help to bend down to their physical level, and also use say the word that goes along with the sign.

I have provided a list of frequently used basic signs for use with infants/toddlers.  If you wish to view more signs, I would suggest borrowing a CD-ROM or DVD from the library, or taking an adult education class in your area.

Again, this is not intended to "substitute" for speech therapy.  If you have questions or concerns regarding your child's rate of speech development, please seek assistance form a licensed professional.

Frequently Used Infant/Toddler Signs

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