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January 5, 2004

Teach me the sign, please

From: - Jan 5, 2004

Very young children struggle to express their wants and needs. Teaching them simple sign words such as 'yes,' 'no,' 'more' and 'help' can enable them to communicate with caregivers earlier, eliminating frustration.

By Kevin P. Thé Illustration by Leah Tiscione / Staff

When Michelle Locke started signing with her baby, she wasn't hoping that her son might one day become fluent in American Sign Language, or ASL. All she wanted was to avoid temper tantrums.

Locke has been so pleased with the results that she partnered with friend Kristi Thomas to teach other parents the benefits of baby sign language. Their first "Signing Smart" class for Tucson moms and dads ended in November, and a new round begins Saturday.

It has been almost two years since Locke's son, Shelton, was born. She had heard that using sign language could help infants and toddlers communicate with caregivers before they could speak - thus lessening frustration on the part of both parent and child - so she decided to give it a shot. Locke went to Bookman's, found a book on the subject, and, when her son turned 6 months old and could sit in his highchair, she started incorporating a few signs into feeding time.

Locke would ask Shelton if he wanted "more," while making the symbol with her hands, and when feeding time was over she would sign and say "all done."

It took about three months for Shelton to sign his first word - it was "more" - but then his progress quickened and he began picking up clusters of signs. He had built a vocabulary of about 20 ASL words by the time he started speaking, at about 13 months old.

As for the tantrums, Locke thanks her lucky stars whenever she sees a child the same age as Shelton just screaming his or her head off in public.

"Whenever he gets frustrated, I can see it, and he just looks at me and signs 'help,' " Locke said.

Despite her son's progress, Locke thought his development would be improved in a group setting. She knew that Thomas - a former counselor for the deaf who's been signing for 13 years - was using sign language with her kids, so Locke approached her about starting a group class.

"At first I was thinking it could be just a fun play group," said Locke, who knew other mothers who were trying to use sign-language books without much success. She thought the moms could support each other and share ideas, and the kids would benefit from seeing other children and parents signing, too.

"And I was proud of my son. I wanted other people to see him," Locke said.

But when Locke read about a new type of curriculum called Signing Smart and showed it to Thomas, the latter knew immediately that her friend had stumbled upon a gem.

Drawing from her education background - she now works for the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind - and experience with sign, Thomas believes that the Signing Smart instruction is more complete than other baby-sign-language programs that are out there, most notably Baby Signs and Sign With Your Baby.

"Wide-Eyed Learning (the company that developed Signing Smart) is, I think, kind of the third wave," Thomas said. In her opinion, this program is an improvement upon - and evolutionary result of - the previous two.

The biggest knock against Baby Signs, Thomas said, was that it required parents to make up many symbols for their children. Sign With Your Baby came along and was based more strictly on ASL but, according to Thomas, didn't teach parents effective techniques for incorporating sign into the child's world.

"It also doesn't teach how to look for early approximations that the babies are going to make," which can lead to a lot of frustration, she said.

Just as a child learning to speak might say "ba-ba" before he or she can pronounce "bottle," infants and toddlers also make earlier approximations in sign language that are fairly consistent and common among individual children.

For example, parents learn to make the "more" sign by bringing together the tips of their hands with puckered fingers, but most babies don't have the manual dexterity to do this. Instead, many will simply make a clapping motion or touch the index finger of one hand to the palm of the other.

"If you don't know what you're looking for, you could miss it for three months," Thomas said. Many parents misunderstand or don't see a lot of these signs and assume that what they're doing isn't working and then give up, Thomas said.

The Signing Smart class teaches parents to recognize these baby versions of sign and also "teaches the families how to get started and how to incorporate it into everyday life," Thomas said.

Parents are encouraged to start with words for things and actions that children will see a lot and do a lot, like "eat." Parents also must observe their children and select words for objects that are important to them, such as a favorite ball or stuffed bear.

Both Locke and Thomas say that many people's first reaction when they hear about baby sign language is to ask if it hinders the children's development of verbal language, in essence giving them a crutch to use so that they can ask for things and express themselves without having to learn to speak. Research by signing's proponents suggests that language development is actually enhanced in babies who sign.

Locke thinks that this is because when signs are taught, parents also reinforce the words verbally.

In her case, her son's first sign was also his first spoken word: "more."

The fact that Locke and Thomas have signed - and still are signing - with their own children is a big plus to the parents who take the class.

"They both have a lot of enthusiasm; it makes the class really fun," said Peggie Allen, who took the first class with her 14-month-old daughter and is signed up to take it again. Allen said it carries more weight when a teacher can share personal experiences, making statements that start, "With Shelton . . ." rather than a book that begins a sentence, "A child might normally. . . ."

Allen also thinks that the format of the class is effective. Instead of a pressure-to-perform classroom setting, the Signing Smart sessions are conducted just like playtime, incorporating signs into the different songs, activities and the like.

"It makes things kind of relaxing," Allen said.

This is precisely the point, Thomas said, as signs should be added in the context of the child's daily life and shouldn't seem like work for either parent or baby.

"It's all about having fun with your child," Thomas said. "And on top of that, you're going to get to communicate with them at an earlier age."

Parents also believe that signing makes for a strong bonding experience that is priceless. Peggie Allen's husband, Sam Rua, went to one class a few weeks into the last course with Allen and daughter Marielle. He soon rearranged his schedule so that he could go every week.

"It's fun to see her interact with the other kids," Rua said, "and we're learning at the same time that the kids are learning."

It has always been important to Locke to teach her husband some of the signs and get him involved as well.

"I think it was a really good way for my husband to have an interactive role," she said. "I think he (Shelton) picked it up a lot faster when he saw that his dad was excited about it, too.

"I think it really pulled our family together," Locke said. "It was a fun activity that we could do together."

Class Info Signing Smart classes are offered at two locations:

* Saturday mornings at Northwest Community Friends Church, 5950 N. La Cañada Drive
• The 10-week course begins Saturday
• Class for ages 6-12 months is 9-9:45 a.m.
• Class for ages 12-24 months is 10:15-11 a.m.
* Thursday afternoons near River and Craycroft roads
• The 10-week course begins Jan. 22
• Class for ages 6-12 months is 1-1:45 p.m.
• Class for ages 12-24 months is 2:15-3 p.m.
* Cost is $125, which includes registration fee, instructional handbook and video.
* To sign up, call 624-0881.
* For more information on the Signing Smart curriculum, go online at

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