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Sign Language and Learning

An adult sitting in front of two children, signing while reading a book.

Check the SPARK Program Calendar for upcoming Sign Language Story Times with Circle of Friends Signing School!

Every behavior a child expresses is a sign of communication. For an infant that is crying, and as a child grows they add more tools of expression such as talking or drawing. There are also unhelpful forms of expression such as hitting, biting, or screaming. All of these are a form of communication. The more tools a child has to communicate successfully, the more helpful forms of expression they will use. While a child is learning to talk, their receptive language, or what they understand, develops before their expressive language, or what they can use. This gap in what they know and what they can express will impact how a child behaves.

Think about yourself in an overwhelming situation. Everything feels out of control when you can’t define the problem or explain how you are feeling about a situation. With adult words, adult experiences, and adult self-regulating skills, you are feeling overwhelmed. Imagine how a child reacts without the right words, or without the ability to take a deep breath and think about what they need.

An adult sitting in front of two children singing while reading a book.

Since receptive language is learned before expressive language emerges, sign language is often a method used with children to provide them with language while they are learning spoken language. It empowers children to express their feelings, wants, and needs successfully with their caretakers. Learning a style of communication that is successful early, can help a child learn language more quickly, both in sign and verbally.

Sign language is a demonstrative language that uses the hands, body, and facial expressions to communicate. Even while using basic signs such as more, water, or sit the signer's face will naturally pair with the sign to show excitement, frustration, or sadness. Paired with the nonverbal communication of the rest of the body, these traits of sign language encourage children to learn to read nonverbal communication. This improves their social and emotional skills while providing them with language.

When a child has the signs to tell you they are excited or frustrated, hungry or thirsty, they will be able to express their need rather than showing another behavior. There is a noticeable difference in a child’s response after asking for water and receiving water, rather than crying because they are thirsty and getting checked for scrapes or a dirty diaper. Those aren’t meeting the need of thirst, so the child will cry louder and become more frustrated until the need is met. When a child has success in communicating their needs they will stay calm and ready to continue learning throughout the day.

An adult sitting in front of a group of children teaching them signs.

Older children will refine their ability to read nonverbal body language through practicing signs. This could be with caregivers for fun, or with younger siblings for communication. No matter the intention, the nature of sign encourages a person to view the entire body's signals to understand the urgency or type of need they are being told. For example, if a young child was signing water excitedly maybe they want a bath and to play in the water. Where as, if they are looking uncomfortable and sign water they might be thirsty. Depending on the vocabulary of the signer and receiver, the body language can support the level of communication and type of need. This learning of body language will support children in all their interactions as they grow and develop social skills.

No matter the age of your child, a way to communicate without words, or using signs that feel more appropriate for their feelings will empower them. This control over their life will support them in further learning and building relationships. Learn to sign with your child, it is fun and could be your own secret language. Can you come up with your own secret sign together?

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