I won’t deny it has been a long year. A year of change. A year of resilience. A year where some of the time I have felt that all I have achieved is marking time.
Today my son was two. Two is a turning point for many parents. The official start of the toddler years. Renowned for tantrums and tears. For growth and assertion. For language and communication. I no longer have a baby in my home. I have a small, determined, vocal, independent two year old….
His grasp of language I find astounding. There is much emphasis about a child having 50 words at two years of age. I haven’t honestly bothered to count how many my son has because there are so many but I would hazard guess its around the 200 word mark. And not just random words either – connected sentences of up to 5-6 words with all of his language being functional and in context.
I am not the only parent to experience the joys of signing and the richness of hearing my child’s (advanced for age) speech development. There are those who still believe that a child who is using signing will not learn to speak – but when done correctly, with the right teacher and consistent input, signing is the most incredible parenting tool. I would go so far as to say that it is a must have parenting tool.
My son now uses signing mostly for new words to make sure he has grasped their correct meaning and with people who he doesn’t know well. He signs for emphasis, to make sure that his point or need is being seen and met.
And now we are set for a new adventure into the pre-school years. With confidence in his ability, we rise to meet the challenge.
In the past we have talked about how toddler tantrums can stem from the requirement to have one or more of four immediate needs met – the need to eat, drink, sleep or receive comfort – and how this has been reported to be the trigger for up to 90% of tantrums for small people. We’ve also talked about how toddlers who receive a response and have these needs met, can move onto higher level learning, engaging their interests elsewhere.
At this stage even more frustration can manifest itself as a lack of vocabulary to explain concepts or objects that are required right now (!) to you become apparent. A toddlers understanding is 6 months ahead of their ability to express themselves – what a hugely frustrating and overwhelming time for our small people.
Over the years I have become adept at handling this, calming the storm of upset and miscommunication with two simple words:
It wasn’t until I was delivering some training for Early Years professionals at one of my regular Twilight Sessions that I realised that this was a piece of information that everyone would find useful. And it can be applied to older babies, toddlers and older children too. All young children struggle with vocabulary and frequently get upset and frustrated.
When you see your baby or young child becoming upset, ask (and sign) if you can HELP. Wait for your child to respond. If they become agitated or upset again, simply say, ‘Show me’. Over 3 children and nearly 8 years, my experience has been that a small child will calm down almost immediately upon hearing these words.
Younger babies can be carried on a hip and will generally gesticulate in the direction that they need your attention.
Babies who are on the move will crawl in the direction that you are needed.
Toddlers will eagerly grasp your hand and drag you to where they feel they need help.
But the calm descends first. Your child has your attention. You have recognised the need for help and responded appropriately.
Once your child has shown you what it is that they want or need – a drink from the kitchen, a train that has got stuck, a cat on the windowsill – you can use this opportunity to show your little one the sign and use the correct words to describe what they are seeing. It also helps you to understand your child’s higher level learning – what motivates and interests them.
This has two benefits;
for pre-verbal children, you have given them the ability to communicate for themselves, without distress, in the future.
for children who are acquiring language, you are giving them the gift of the right words.
For those who worry about toddler’s speech development, I would like to make it very clear that signing is always replaced by speech once a child feels confident with the spoken word. From time to time a child may use the sign as well as the word, to reinforce an important point for emphasis or to make it very clear that they require a need to be met.
These last two weeks have been a bit of a signing whirlwind in our home, with my 17 month acquiring signs almost as quickly as you can work out what it is that he wants the sign for.
He is an incredibly confident child – independent, curious and keeps me on his toes with his daredevil antics climbing way beyond Mumma’s comfort zone! – but this signing explosion is something that we see at our classes over and over again with older babies and toddlers.
Signing children, by their very nature, tend to be more confident. Why? In my personal opinion I think it comes down to the reassurance of a responsive parent who is able to understand AND meet needs without any difficulty. This leaves little ones able to get on with the important things in life – climbing, gazing at butterflies, contemplating ants and eating daisies…..
I am a huge fan of Abraham Maslows Hierarchy of Needs, upon which principle our classes are uniquely centered around. Created in 1943, the Hierarchy of Needs was based on Maslow’s theory that Man’s “most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire or focus motivation upon higher level needs.”
Basic needs are literally the requirements for human survival; food, drink, sleep, excretion. Without these needs being met, quite simply the body cannot continue to function. If a child is unable to communicate these needs and be understood, they are unable to progress upon higher level needs, impacting on interests and learning – always concentrating on the unmet need, feeling “anxious and tense”.
By introducing simple first signs, children can be more confident of having their needs met even if they do not know how to ask verbally. A more confident child is a much happier child and consequently less frustrated and able to engage in learning; frustrated children are very often disruptive and unhappy.
And so my boy is very confident of having his needs met – so much so that he can indeed focus his motivation on higher level needs and interests (back to climbing!) and also in gaining more non-verbal language to explain these interests so that I too can understand what motivates him.
At the same time, his speech development is being supported by learning and understanding new words; whilst he cannot yet say biscuit for instance, he can now tell me his preference and is practicing with new sounds.
I know without doubt that the word, and requests for new signs, will not be far behind.
This week we welcome our Bristol and Portishead teacher, Bethan, to the blog with a piece about signing with older children and toddlers. This blog is so insightful and I am sure will resonate with everyone who is experienced in using signing beyond babyhood.
If you would like to join our popular, fun and life changing baby or toddler signing classes in Bristol or Portishead, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 07812 601676.
This phrase definitely goes for me and my little signers. Lyla is 3 (and 3/4s!) and Noah is 2. They know very well that signing adds importance, urgency or emphasis to what they want to say – and the same goes for when mummy does it!
So, signing with your pre-verbal baby is a wonderful gift. You are giving them a communication tool that will enrich your lives together. But it doesn’t end when they begin to speak, far from it! At one year old Lyla had an impressive 5 words; mum, dad, dog, ball and car. Super proud mum! But they weren’t useful things. She also had signs for ‘eat’, ‘drink’, ‘more’, ‘bed’, ‘nappy change’, ‘cuddle’ and ‘piggy’ (her bedtime toy). Now that, in conjunction with her words, was a formidable combination. Of course by now she rabbits on continuously and uses signs more sparingly. So now when she signs, it acts as an automatic filter, ‘mummy this is important!’
If my children really want something, they sign it…‘biscuit’ quickly followed by ‘please’ and then (if they get one) ‘thank you’!
If they really feel something they sign it! Noah was recently wowing some other mums at soft play as he displayed his ability to articulate his feelings. He came to me crying and very distressed, but was able to splutter the word and clearly sign for “ANGRY”. We were able to discuss it later when he was calm, and there had been some altercation over the child to slide ratio. The point is, 1) he was able to tell me that he was angry. He’d identified that feeling and could sign it to me in a moment of distress. And, 2) I was able to respond properly. I didn’t have to spend ages trying to discover if he had hit his head, or was hungry. He was ANGRY. No doubt about that.
If I really mean it, I sign it. The examples of this with a 2 & 3 year old in the house are focused mainly on safety or persuasion! ‘Danger’, ‘don’t touch…hot’ , ‘please & thank you’ ‘again’ ‘sorry’ ‘play’ ‘bed’ and so on.
When Noah was younger he made a move to touch the oven while I was cooking. Lyla shouted “No Noah!” I whip round to see her say and sign “Don’t touch that, it’s ‘HOT’!” Fantastic! He was old enough to understand her meaning had she simply said the words but she knew to add the sign for emphasis and he knew that it was worth taking notice.
So, aside from showing her hand as a big sister bossy boots, she showed that in our house, if we sign it, we mean it.
Signing has given them both a way of making themselves understood and to be taken seriously, two enviable qualities in any person, even a little one!
I am just a teensy teensy bit biased when it comes to my nearly 16 month old son (I think he is amazing!) and being a baby signing mummy for the third time around and having taught for nearly 9 years, you would think that by now, I would have got used to the way in which young children use signing and just how incredible that is.
Shortly after our autonomous signing incident (see Dandelion Clocks) we had a Very Windy Day. Not an ordinary Very Windy Day because this was the day that my baby REQUESTED a sign so that he could make sense of the world around him.
My son blows me away with his non-verbal communication – not only signing but expressive tone of voice, use of body language and his mimicry of facial expressions. He could see the trees moving quite violently but was very clear in wanting to understand more.
Holding him up to the window he began to persistently point at the trees and use his ‘questioning’ voice – the sounds he makes when he wants to know what something is. (At 16 months he has a very definite NO and shaking of the head, so as we were naming things, he was able to be quite emphatic about whether we had got it right!)
Realisation dawned on this sleep deprived mama and, saying the word ‘Wind’ and signing it over 3 or 4 times, was enough for him to be satisfied firstly that I understood what it was that he needed to know and secondly for him to grasp the sign for himself. He now makes the sign regularly when he sees the leaves on the trees move and with perfect puffed cheeks and blowing to indicate the wind too. These interactions are vital – managing to co-ordinate the mouth to puff then blow as well as move his hands in a sweeping motion at the the same time is giving his gross motor skills a great workout but also enabling facial expression and the formative process for forming an ‘O’ mouth too.
It is so easy to miss, and dismiss, these exchanges with small children. But when we take the time to connect and align with their interests, there is so much richness to be found. I now know that my son is observing much more than I had ever realised about the world around him and where his interests lie. And his knowledge is expanding as he learns not only how he can request information but also put it to practical use, months before he will be able to verbalise the word ‘wind’.
THREE WAYS in which your baby or toddler may request words and signs:
Point repeatedly at an object
Stare at an object
Use a ‘questioning’ voice
Please remember to always use the word as you sign it – your child is trying to gather information about the world around them and although they may not yet be able to say the word, these interactions help young children retain information.
Meeting the EYFS with baby and toddler signing:
Personal, Social and Emotional Development
self confidence and awareness
Communication and Language
Listening and attention
Understanding the World
Join one of our Speech and Language Therapist Approved baby signing classes, become a teacher or learn more about our nursery training which supports nurseries, childminders, Children’s Centres and Early Years Professionals.
Today my baby and I took our daily walk. There is nothing unusual in this, but today is definitely not an ordinary day. Today, my 14 month old baby made up his own sign for ‘Dandelion Clock’.
He has been fascinated with the dandelion clocks since they started appearing a few days ago.
Add in his two big sisters blowing the seeds high into the sky over the weekend, watching them floating loose in the wind, and this fascination went to a whole new level. The excitement when he was given one for himself was tangible – and a memory I shall carry for a long time.
But today, my baby signed for himself; a new sign, that he figured out for himself. Holding his hand in front of him as if grasping the stem of the dandelion clock, he then blew, repeatedly and said ‘more?’ afterwards.
There was no mistaking what it was that he wanted and that he had found a way to let me know too.
This shows me that my baby knows, without question, that he can communicate with me even if I have not shown him a sign already (and no, I have absolutely no idea what the correct sign for dandelion clock is but we will be using this one now!) His use of gesture and sound, together, make me very aware of what is on his mind, even though he does not yet have the ability to say ‘dandelion’ and probably won’t for some time to come.
The outdoors is a rich opportunity for you to explore nature and to use signing with your child. In our interaction today, not only did baby J make up his own sign, but we had a whole dialogue going on between us which strengthens bonding, his communication development and a sense of adventure too! Signs and words that frequently came up on our walk were ‘where’, ‘look’, ‘bird’, ‘snail’, ‘flowers’, ‘tree’, ‘over here’, ‘careful’, ‘danger’, ‘ow!’ (nettles) – so you can see quite quickly how easily it is for new signs and expressive language to be acquired.
Today also gave me an incredible insight into my baby’s world, which is an experience unique to us and not one that I would have missed for the world.
For those working in Early Years, this level of interaction and interest ticks many boxes for the EYFS – in just an hour.
Personal, Social and Emotional Development
self confidence and awareness
Moving and handling
Health and self care
Communication and Language
Listening and attention
Understanding the World
Expressive Arts and Design
Exploring different textures and materials
To join a class, become a teacher or learn more about our Early Years training, please contact us!
We hear a lot about baby signing in the news; on the one hand there are those who say it enhances IQ and there are others including the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists who say it shouldn’t be used with children without a speech therapy need – or Karen Pine’s team from the University of Hertfordshire, who say it could be linked with increased parental stress.
So what are parent’s supposed to believe?
How are parent’s supposed to react?
Speech and language expert Libby Hill, from Small Talk Speech and Language Therapy & Smart Talkers Pre-School groups looks at the pros and cons to help you make up your own mind.
The benefits of signing:
It empowers babies to communicate earlier.
The more you know about all the factors involved in making speech sounds, the more you wonder how anyone manages it. The brain has to send a signal to the muscles, and then the airflow has to be co-ordinated with moving the tongue, mouth and gums (teeth in older children and adults). A baby can move their hands with some control from very early on. Babies will not talk until 12 months of age or later but they can indicate by gesture or sign much earlier. Early communication intention is about making choices and making your needs known.
Helping a child’s self esteem isn’t just telling them how well they’re doing. Being seen as having something worth saying and that someone will listen and respond, is a huge component in the development of self esteem in both children and adults. If you can’t get your message across, self esteem will always be affected. If the baby signs and is rewarded, he knows he has something worth saying even before he had the spoken vocabulary e.g. that he wants milk, that he’s hungry, in pain
If someone can express themselves they will be less frustrated. Sign can also be used as part of the explanation about why something can’t happen or has finished. A case study done recently by Small Talk showed fewer toddler temper tantrums when sign was used. Kim Nash mum to Oliver felt it really made a difference, When you’re too upset to ‘hear’ explanations, a visual prompt may get through’.
Enhances language skills.
Language is not just the words that are spoken. A huge part is the understanding of what is said to you.
Children learn in different ways and use different means e.g. auditory, kinaesthetic and visual. These days the visual channel is usually stronger than the auditory channel. To learn words/vocabulary is mainly auditory, when this is boosted by a sign it capitalises on this strength and so it helps the child to learn the words more quickly.
At Horn End nurseries in Staffordshire, where they use sign as part of a consolidated approach to encourage language development, they know that if they sign to accompany an instruction e.g. perhaps with a preposition, the children will follow more quickly. They have had training from Small Talk about enhancing all communication opportunities.
Deborah Falshaw, nursery owner and Early Years practitioner sees it as ‘another layer to encourage children’s understanding and expressive skills’. OFSTED have made particular reference to it in one of the nurseries who received outstanding across the board.
Enhances bonding and enriches parent-child interaction
The main benefit of baby signing is that it gives the parent a reason to interact very early on. The sign is the vehicle for the enhanced interaction. The more communication attempts are recognised and rewarded the more they will develop. The less a baby is interacted with, the slower the brain connections necessary for language and communication will develop. Studies have linked a lack of communication with babies with later difficulties including ADHD and a lack of social understanding especially empathy. Sue Gerhardt’s Book ‘Why Love Matters’ is an excellent reference for this area.
Makes signing socially acceptable
One of the benefits of it being widely accepted is that parents of children with a clinical need to sign are more likely to agree to their child signing. Previously, when a speech and language therapist wanted to introduce sign to assist a child’s understanding or expressive language skills, parents frequently felt that it would single their child out even further. A greater use in all children prevents this and promotes better acceptance.
Later in the week we’ll be looking at whether there are any disadvantages to using signing with small children and allaying common parental concerns.
First published in November 2010 in response to Hands on mothering: Improving infant communication in low socio-economic families with gesture Karen Pine & Elizabeth Kirk University of Hertfordshire School of Psychology.