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Using Sign to Relate to Your Little Learner, Tips From a Speech-Language Pathologist

Almost 12 years ago, I became a certified Speech-Language Pathologist. My first job out of graduate school was working in pediatrics in a hospital setting. On the very first day of my career, I learned that I would be taking over a caseload made up almost entirely of children who were deaf and hard of hearing. On the outside, I remained cool and level headed. Inside, I was extremely nervous and frightened, as this was a population I had never worked with before. Now, I am beyond grateful to have had that opportunity, as it was a springboard for what would be a large focus of my career.

Through my work helping this population of children become better communicators, I learned that many of the strategies used to accomplish their goals could be successfully implemented to help children with other speech and language delays and impairments. I began using sign language with children who presented with language delays. The results were impressive. By using sign combined with spoken words, I observed that many of my clients were progressing more rapidly in their understanding and use of new vocabulary, and parents and caregiviers were finally able to connect more meaningfully. Frustration was reduced, and replaced with pride in the skills their children were acquiring.

I’d like to share what I’ve learned in my work as a Speech-Language Pathologist, and provide you with a few tips for your toolbox when setting out on this journey! Using sign with your child can be a useful tool for opening the communication floodgates!

1. Start early. Even babies can benefit from the use of sign language. Provide eye contact to your baby, model the sign, and use hand-over-hand assistance to help your little one sign a few, important words when appropriate. Basic signs such as eat, drink, mommy, daddy, more, and all done are good to start with.

2. Always pair signs with verbalizations. Even as babies, it is vital that signs be paired with the actual words they represent. We want babies and children to associate signs with words, and ultimately, begin using those words to communicate their wants and needs independently. Remember, you are modeling the communication you want to receive from your child.

3. Require your child to use verbal approximations during sign. As soon as babies are able to babble, we can ask them to start using sounds with their signs. Modeling “mmmmm” for more and “aaaahh-da” for all done are examples of this. Expect it to take some time for your child to understand this, but be persistent. It will happen. I often act as though I’m confused if a child uses just the sign to communicate. An example of this is might be when a child provides the sign for eat without a verbalization. In this situation, I would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean. Can you tell me what you want? Did you say eat?” (or “eeeee”, etc, whatever the child is able to produce) and I would point to my mouth, indicating that I have the expectation for them to use their voice. Given time and practice, your child should begin to catch on and use sounds and words along with their signs to communicate with you.

4. Be consistent. This is a tough one. When you know exactly what your child wants, it can be tempting to accept pointing and grunting as communication, but don’t give up! By teaching your child to communicate, you are also teaching them that their signs and words have power! They will quickly realize that it is way easier to communicate in this way, and that they can have what they want, when they want it-sometimes!

5. Combine signs when appropriate. Once your child has more down, try combining more with another sign. For instance more milk, more bubbles, more hugs! Take it slow, and remember to always include the spoken word when you’re signing!

I hope some of these tips will be useful. Remember to have fun and encourage your child to keep using sign by providing them with lots of positive feedback!

Robyn Hillison, M.A., CCC-SLP is a nationally certified Speech-Language Pathologist and the owner of Capital Speech & Language Therapy Services, a private practice located in Tallahassee, Florida.


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