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How Baby Sign Language Can Calm Tantrums

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A few months ago, my 1 year old son started whining. For the first five seconds of his moans, I frantically looked around for what he could possibly want. I came up empty-handed. Fearing his whines would ramp up at any moment, I mentally prepared for an all out tantrum, but was stopped short when he put three middle fingers up to his mouth and tapped it a few times. “Water. He wants water,” I said to myself. I got him water, and he was happy. All of this probably took 15 seconds — sign language saved the day yet again.

I have been a teacher for the deaf and hard-of-hearing for 10 years now, and learning and using American Sign Language (ASL) since I was 12 years old. I always knew that when I had kids of my own that I would teach them sign language. Sure enough I had my son two years ago, and I began teaching him sign language from Day 1 (OK, maybe more like Day 10 due to, you know, having a new born and postpartum recovery), but sign language has proven to be beneficial in more ways than I can count.

Why Should I Teach My Child Sign Language?

I have witnessed firsthand the benefits of sign language with my students and my own son, and as one mom to another, I feel compelled to share them.

  1. Sign language is another way to make connections.
    For all children, especially young kids who are learning to speak, read, and write and English Language Learners (ELL), sign language is another way to make connections to language. When being taught to speak and read, children hear the word being spoken and see it with print, but with sign language, learners are also seeing the sign being made and make the sign with their hands. Therefore, students are getting a combination of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning all at once, making language acquisition quicker and more effective.
  2. Sign language helps with communication, reading, vocabulary, and spelling.
    Research shows that sign language taught at an early age can help progress speech development faster. And contrary to popular belief, sign language delaying speech is actually a myth. The opposite is quite true, in fact: Sign language helps improve speech, according to research.

    In addition, sign language can ease frustrations. Young children, students with certain special needs, and English Language Learners might not always have the spoken language available to communicate, but signing helps express what they are trying to say, building confidence and decreasing feelings of frustration and isolation. Long-term research has even found that teaching kids sign language also leads to better spelling, vocabulary, and reading.

  3. Sign Language improves behavior.
    When children are able to communicate their needs effectively, their behavior naturally improves. This is especially true with toddlers who experience a lot of frustrations throughout the day because they do not always have the verbal language to express what they need. For example, instead of getting overtired which would eventually lead to a meltdown, my son would sign the “sleep” when he was ready to take a nap or go to bed for the evening. Likewise, when he was hungry, he would put his fingers up to his mouth repeatedly.
  4. Sign Language builds relationships.
    Deaf students who attend public schools are often one of few in the whole school or class, if not the only one. Having no one to communicate with all day besides a teacher of the deaf or interpreter can feel isolating. In addition, these students are often going home where little communication is happening with them besides gestures and writing which isn’t an actual language system. Incorporating sign language into homes and schools can foster new relationships, break down language barriers, and develop knowledge of new cultures.

How Do I Start Teaching My Child Sign Language?

There are a few things to keep in mind after you decide that you want to start signing with your child. First, you don’t need to be fluent in ASL to start signing with your baby or toddler. There are plenty of resources out there. But do make sure that they are by deaf people or backed by deaf/ASL experts. In fact, when you’re just beginning, I would skip the books that have hundreds of signs in them and focus on only the words your baby needs to communicate their wants and needs. These words are a good starting point:

  • Milk
  • More
  • All Done
  • Eat
  • Help
  • Again
  • Up
  • Yes/No
  • Please/Thank You
  • Hot/Cold
  • Diaper
  • Sleep
  • Poop
  • Bath
  • Water
  • Outside
  • Love
  • Mom/Dad

As for when to start signing with your baby, it is never too late or too early to start. As I previously mentioned, I started signing right away, but my son didn’t start signing back until he was about 6 months. Don’t let this discourage you. Your baby will start understanding sign language long before he will be able to produce any signs on his own. I could tell he was comprehending by the way he would stare intently whenever I would start signing, or he would dart his eyes looking for whatever I would sign. Usually, this was milk, and I could see the excitement in his eyes. Remember to always capture your child’s attention before you start signing. As you progress, be on the lookout for your child’s signs. Your baby or toddler will not reproduce a sign exactly as you do it. Their fine motor skills are not yet developed to that point yet. But this still counts as signing and learning a word!

As with many things, repetition is key. Like anything in life, the more consistently you sign, the more your child will pick up on the meaning behind the sign. For example, I would say and sign, “It’s naptime. Time to sleep, sleep. Henry is sleepy,” on our way up to his room. Then, once in his room, I would repeat again with the sign for sleep. And don’t forget that facial expressions are such a huge part of ASL. When signing with your child, make sure your expressions match the mood and feelings you are trying to convey.

Where Can I Find More Resources to Teach My Child Sign Language?

There are a ton of resources out there, but I want to share a few of my favorites.

  • SignMeUp: Created by Elise Tate, an influencer and the wife of NFL football player Golden Tate, with the help of experts in the language, SignMeUp consists of a book and poster with essential starter signs. What I like about this resource is that the pictures are clear, the children signing are diverse, the colors are aesthetically pleasing, and the explanations, memory tips, and examples on how to use them are easy to follow.
  • ASL Nook: This website is run by a deaf mom, who has one deaf daughter and one hearing daughter. The family creates ASL videos for a variety of subjects.
  • The ASL App: This app is run by deaf people, and has over 2,000+ signs and phrases.
  • Signgrow: Mary is a baby sign expert who shares her knowledge on her Instagram page. She offers videos, courses, and helpful tips for parents who want to teach their babies sign language.

It’s dinnertime at our house. Throughout the whole meal my son signs “more” when he wants more food. He signs “water” when he wants more to drink. He throws his hands up when he is “all done.” We take him out of the highchair, and he wanders into the kitchen. He heads to the fridge and signs “milk.” He drinks his milk and plays with his toy. I repeatedly sign “sleep” while telling him that it’s almost time for bed. He puts his hand up to his head for “sleep.” We go up to sleep having survived the evening with very little tantrums and frustrations. And that’s because of sign language.

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