Home Private Practice 11 Tips to Improve a Child’s Communication Using Signs

11 Tips to Improve a Child’s Communication Using Signs

by Jill Eversmann
written by
Speech-language pathologist teaching a mother and her young child to sign.

We see it every day with our young clients: When they’re hungry, thirsty, hurt, tired, or want a specific toy or activity, they whine, scream, point or grunt as their means of communication. This nonverbal communication creates a guessing game for the parent, caregiver or speech-language pathologist. Sometimes they guess correctly, but when they don’t, everyone involved can get frustrated, especially the child.

If you work with clients who fit this description, I find signing provides good results with most young children and their families.

Signing offers a useful and calming communication tool for many situations. I’ve used it in conjunction with other augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems, or as the child learns to talk. Using signs with young clients can encourage clear communication with the child, while improving their speech and language development.

I suggest implementing—and teaching caregivers—these 11 tips to help children transition from whining to signing:

Consider using American Sign Language (ASL) signs. Using single signs doesn’t mean the child knows sign language, but it’s a good base of the vocabulary that’s part of a true language. ASL has its own syntax, morphology and word order that are different from those in spoken or signed English. Young clients may use only single signs before starting to talk.

Encourage signing instead of whining. Help your client use signs as more specific communication alternatives to gestures like whining, crying, screaming, pointing, grunting and other negative behaviors.


Research shows that children with communication challenges do best when introduced to AAC as early as 12 months.

Amidst renewed debate about teaching signed versus spoken language to children who are deaf, a cadre of professionals calls for emphasizing all forms of early language access.

ASHA’s Practice Portal on AAC


Start with meaningful signs for the child. Signs like “eat,” “milk,” “mom,” “all done,” “mine” and “stop” facilitate functional communication. Some of these signs in ASL are also iconic—they look like what they represent—making them easier for the child and communication partners to learn.

Use the signs in context. When the child is eating, introduce the sign for “eat,” so they understand the action and the sign that goes with it.

When teaching signs to a child, it’s helpful to show it, sign it and say it. Some children may not remember the label or action when it’s only signed and spoken. The child stands a better chance of understanding the sign and the word in context if you:

  • Show them the object or a picture.
  • Demonstrate the sign for the item or action.
  • Say the word verbally.

Decrease yes/no questions that a child can answer with a head nod or shake. Instead, offer a choice. Instead of “Do you want some milk?” you can ask “Do you want milk or a book?” If possible, have both items or pictures available and ask by showing them the picture, signing and saying each one.

Accept the child’s version of the sign. Like with speech, a toddler might make a sign that’s not exact.

Repeat the word and sign. If a toddler signs “cracker,” but does so incorrectly, like putting his/her fist on the upper arm instead of the elbow, then the adult should sign it correctly, using the same techniques used to encourage speech. For example, “Oh, you want a cracker [say and sign it correctly]. OK, let’s go to the kitchen and get a cracker.”

Vocalize when signing to the child and encourage the child to vocalize with the sign as well. We are trying to use signs to support speech and language development, not as a substitute for speech.

Encourage other family members to sign to each other. This shows young children this is an effective way to communicate for adults and children. Discourage parents from inventing or making up their own signs. This restricts the number of communication partners who understand the signs and limits the child’s ability to communicate in the future.

These easy tips create an easier and more fluid communication environment for your young clients. Signs offer a fun and pivotal tool you can start using today.

 

Jill G. Eversmann, MS, CCC-SLP, owns Speech Signs, LLC, is an instructor and clinical supervisor at Columbia College, South Carolina, and is a national speaker with www.MOTIVATIONSceu.com. She is also a Signing Time Academy instructor. jill@speechsigns.com,

#signlanguage  #ASL  #earlyintervention  #speechtherapy  #speechlanguagepathology

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6 comments

Regina September 28, 2018 - 8:32 pm

This is very useful information!

Jill Eversmann October 3, 2018 - 8:08 am

Thank you, Regina!

Jennifer Han-Rivas September 29, 2018 - 5:26 pm

Reminder for those who are implementing with children that may not be following the typical development of gross and fine motor skills…sign language may be difficult to imitate for students that have motor planning or motor programming deficits. Many of my pre-linguistic communicator students with Autism have difficulty in imitating even the basic (S-Hand shape)…not to be discouraged with continued use of sign language, as it does assist with receptive language, representation skills, and joint attention ☺️.

Jill Eversmann October 3, 2018 - 8:15 am

Thank you, Jennifer, great points! Signing is still a good option for many children with fine motor and/or gross motor weaknesses as well as those with motor planning or motor programming problems. 🙂

Debbie Murphy October 5, 2018 - 12:05 pm

I have used this technique during therapy for mhom 14 -16 months old and can sign more than a dozen words. I fully agree with this tip.

Jill October 26, 2018 - 8:48 am

Thank you for your comment, Debbie! 🙂

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