Simple Sign Language – When, How & Why?

Whether you are a parent or a teacher, chances are you have been around kiddos who simply won’t or aren’t able to communicate with you. That can be frustrating for you, not being able to understand what they want, but imagine how difficult it must be for a child to not be able to tell their parent or caregiver that they want something to eat or that they need to be changed.

What if I told you that you could start teaching your child simple sign language and that they could begin to communicate with you as early as six months old? Pretty amazing, right?

“My First Signs” book

Whether they are two months or two years old, you can start using simple signs throughout your daily routines while modeling the ones that you want your child to use. Adding these signs to the verbal words that you are already using, will teach your child new vocabulary as well as the association between the word, sign and action/object.

Some parents want to teach their young children simple sign language so that they are able to communicate before they are able to verbally say words. Many teachers also use signs with older children to reduce frustration in the classroom. While some children may be delayed in speech and need another way to communicate, other children may simply have difficulty expressing their feelings when they become upset and therefore need another way to express themselves with their peers and teachers during those moments. Either way, using sign language does not hinder speech development; according to research, it actually seems to help children learn to talk sooner.

Basic signs

So, how do you go about teaching your child sign language, especially if you’ve never used it before yourself? Start by thinking about what you want your child to be able to communicate with you – this will depend on their age. For example, if your child is 9 months old, you may want them to let you know when they want milk and when they want more of something. With a 18 month old, maybe you want them to tell you when they want to go play, when they want to eat and when they are finished with their meal. It might help to think about the most difficult transitions or parts of your daily routines – when does your child get frustrated or need to communicate their needs with you the most?

Signing abbreviated version of “eat” – pointing index finger to mouth

There are four basic signs that I have always used with children that I work with as well as with my son – please, more, all done, and help. Please can be used as “I want that”, plus it’s never too early to teach good manners. Help is sometimes difficult for children because it requires two hands and they often have things in their hands when they need help, so feel free to modify that one if needed. Between these four simple signs, your child should be able to communicate their basic needs in a wide variety of situations.

Signing “please” – rubbing his hand in a circle on his chest

After you have made a list, pick a handful of signs that are most important to you and which ones you think will help your child the most. Again, this depends on the age. A 6-12 month old probably needs to start with no more than five signs, pick your top two or three when you’re first starting to teach them. A one-year-old can learn lots of signs, but pick your top five-ten that you’re really wanting them to use on a daily basis. Although you can use more throughout the day, you don’t want to overwhelm the child, causing them to not want to use signs.

If you are unfamiliar with simple signs, learn them yourself before trying to teach your child. There are plenty of great resources, but videos are some of the best ways to learn because most signs include moving your hand(s), so being able to watch someone complete the entire sign is better than looking at a picture. Once you are familiar with the ones you plan to use, then you can print out a worksheet or poster to use as a quick reference for yourself.

Once you begin using signs with your child, be sure to teach the association between the sign you are using and the object or action. For example, if you are teaching the sign for milk, ask your child if they would like milk while showing them the sign. Halfway through the feeding, tell them they they are drinking milk and show the sign again. You can use hand-over-hand demonstration if you’d like to, but I typically give the child plenty of time to imitate.

The key to teaching signs is repetition and consistency. Model the signs for your child frequently throughout the day and use them consistently until the child picks them up. When your child does make an effort to use a sign, make a big deal about it! Clap, cheer and give them hugs! This will encourage your child to repeat the sign again in the future, so that they can continue to receive that positive reinforcement from you.

“I love you”

What if my child doesn’t do the signs perfectly or even makes up their own? As long as you know what your child is “saying”, they are effectively communicating with you. Half of my son’s signs are abbreviated or completely different than the official sign. Even though I taught him the correct way to sign, he for some reason decided to change them up a bit. I continue to use the official signs when I communicate them with him, but I don’t expect him to change his ways. I have shared some of the signs he uses with his daycare teachers so that he is able to communicate while at home and at school.

His own unique sign for “more” – tapping his right index finger against his left palm

Once your child is beginning to speak words, you may notice that they start dropping signs and this is okay! This is what we ultimately want our children to be doing! Simple sign language is merely meant to bridge the gap between when your child is pre-verbal and when they are able to speak their wants and needs. But, don’t be surprised if your child continues to use signs, especially during times of extreme frustration, anger or sadness.

Reluctantly signing his abbreviated “milk” – twiddling his thumb and index finger

I’ll quickly tell you about my family’s experience with using simple sign language. Having used signs with children that I work with who have developmental and speech delays, I knew that I wanted to teach my children simple signs. I started using the signs for milk and please from the time my son was about four months old. He briefly picked up milk when he was around six months, but didn’t consistently use signs until right around a year old. Both his use of signs and verbal words blossomed right after his first birthday and now, at fourteen months, he is using about eight signs and continues to show interest in learning new ones. His ability to use simple signs has decreased his level of frustration, especially when he wants something and might otherwise throw a fit – yes, the one-year-old tantrums are real! I have enjoyed teaching my son signs and will continue to incorporate new ones as he gets older.

Signing “thank-you”

Please share your experience with using simple sign language, whether you taught your own children or kiddos in your classroom!

Katie Miller, CBRS Therapist & Mommy