Signing with toddlers

My child is already starting to talk - why should I sign with my toddler?

Some children naturally take longer to talk than others as it’s a really complex process to get to grips with.

Professional colleague Libby Hill, Speech and Language Therapist, comments 

"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."

The key part of what Libby says is about communication and making your needs known.  Children who don’t know how to communicate their needs and / or feelings easily resort to lashing out or biting or meltdowns. Children who have been shown how to sign, to make their needs clear, ride out the toddler years typically much more easily with far fewer tantrums and less distress.  

Although children have generally started to communicate using speech by this point, sometimes the words themselves overwhelm them, they can’t think of the correct word or they have so much that they want to say that the words will not form. They stutter and stumble trying to communicate, becoming more and more frustrated with themselves when using just a few gestures can alleviate this problem for them until they are more confident with the necessary vocabulary.

ICAN, the children’s communication charity note that toddlers of 12-15 months old can be expected to have around 10 words at this age – most of which will be unclear as speech is very limited.  This can be so frustrating for the little child who is trying to get their point across as well as to the adult who is responsible for their care. 

By comparison, a child of a similar age may have dozens of signs and the research that Dr Garcia undertook indicated that this may be as many as 75 different signs by the same age.  The implication, of course, is that babies and toddlers who can sign have an advantage over those babies who cannot sign – they are able to express their needs and have them met quickly, without resorting to tears.

For non signing toddlers who are slightly older and have more command over simple words, sometimes larger words, more complex ideas that they wish to express just simply overwhelm them.  They can’t think of the correct word or they have so much that they want to say that the words will not form. They stutter and stumble trying to communicate, becoming more and more frustrated with themselves when using just a few gestures can alleviate this problem for them until they are more confident with the necessary vocabulary. 

Toddlers are frequently unable to enunciate words clearly – by using the signs they have learned alongside their very first words, not only can a parent understand what it is that the child is trying to say, but also gently correct speech from the start.

Using signing, in conjunction with speech, also aids older children as it:

  • promotes better communication
  • builds a larger word bank
  • facilitates more effective learning
  • increases confidence
  • improves literacy skills
  • creates calmer learning environments
  • brings meaning to everyday activities with inclusive methods
  • reinforces memory and creative skills
  • enables children with special needs to communicate supporting inclusion

Using a sign in conjunction with speech can help with confidence, be a memory prompt for a word or convey meaning.  A toddler’s comprehension and understanding is 6 months ahead of their ability to express themselves – it’s no wonder that this frustration manifests itself in hitting, tantrums and other behavior that communicates their distress.  

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