This week we are featuring Rachel Coleman, co-creator of Signing Time. If you’ve been with us since the very beginning you may remember our review of the first Signing Time DVD. Both Lani and myself use these DVDs to teach our chirldren sign language. The DVDs are interactive, fun and easy to follow (my mother-in-law has learned over 20 signs just by watching). If you are on the fence about signing I hope this interview helps you with your decision. Even if you have older children, signing can be used in your home.
In your opinion why is it important to teach children sign language?
It is important for infants and toddlers because it relieves their frustrations. Children can use their fine motor skills to communicate with signs before they are able to speak. I’ve seen infants signing at 7 or 8 months, that’s the earliest that I have seen personally, signing milk rather than screaming and crying for it. That’s really empowering for them too. Another great reason to sign with your infants and toddlers is because it requires face to face connection for that communication to happen. You can’t just be talking over your shoulder, you have to be looking at each other and there’s just a really wonderful bonding and connection that happens when you communicate that way.
The terrible twos is another reason why to sign. Toddlers have tantrums because they are frustrated and unable to communicate their needs and feel understood and sign language just typically will wipe that out. There’s complete communication both ways between the caregiver and the child.
When do you think people should start signing with their children? Do you think it should be right away?
Absolutely! And it’s never too late! So as soon as you hear about signing with kids, you should start signing with yours. If you’re expecting you can start learning signs now so you are ready when you have your babies. If you have kids in elementary school you should be signing with them as well. Sign language is an incredible learning tool. It includes visual, and tactile kinesthetics learning. It’s three dimensional, and it’s spacial, so it’s one of the few tools that you have that incorporates so many different learning styles. And most the time kids in school their information is just given to them auditorily, so they are just listening to the information and then they’re writing it down, but in our family we practice our spelling words by finger spelling them. Leah knew her alphabet, her ABC’s before she was 2 years old. She wouldn’t have been able to say them all, but she was able to sign them all. An example of that is if you think of the ABC’s, they’re 26 seemingly random things in a specific order that you have to memorize and remember and children can actually do it before they can talk with sign language. It’s easier for them to learn it with sign language because it’s not just remembering a letter and where it goes, they see it and feel it. They see the pattern on their hands, they feel it, they experience it and it makes it easier to remember.
I know when I started signing with my kids, my Dad was really nervous that it would delay their speech (sorry Dad!) and I know that’s a big argument that a lot people have, that if you sign with them they are not going to start talking. What are your thoughts on that?
I say it’s absolutely hogwash! Every single child starts communicating with signs. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s just based on a ridiculous fear that my kid won’t develop, a fear that we’re going to hurt them and interrupt their natural milestones. The truth is every single child begins communicating with signs, or they begin speaking. Communication doesn’t delay communication. It just doesn’t. Speech is a skill that they have their whole life to learn. Language is essential with or without speech. They can be signing and developing language before they have the skill of speaking. They’re two different things. They’re two different ways of communicating. It’s not going to interfere.
When I say every single child begins signing, they do. When your child first waved “bye bye” did anybody think, oh no tie their hands down they’re never going to say it. No, absolutely not! You know when they sign it, what’s going to happen next? They’re going to say it. So then everybody is waving “bye bye” and look they can wave “bye bye”. Then you are showing it off and you are so excited and what people just don’t have solidified in their minds is that that is a sign. When they put their arms up in the air, it means “pick me up”. That is a sign. They are communicating, why? Because it works, and because it’s easy for them. And I’ve heard people say that too, “well signing is easy for them so don’t do it”. Well that is ridiculous! If it is easy for them, why wouldn’t you encourage that? Give them hundreds and hundreds of signs so that they can share their world and the things they care about with you.
So when people ask me that, I say it’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s based in fear, and there’s no merit to it. Every single child begins with signing. They point to what they want, they point to the pantry and whine and then you have to guess what it is that they want, they know. If they had a sign for Goldfish crackers, if they had a sign for fruit snacks or cereal they wouldn’t have to point and say “ah ah” and whine while you guess. They would just be signing it to you. It takes a lot of the guess work and frustration out of parenting. You also experience your child as a remarkable and unique human being. When your two year old, who maybe doesn’t have clear speech or isn’t able to communicate all kinds of things to you starts signing to you and is letting you know what is important to them. An experience my sister had with her son Sean, she was pulling off the freeway going to their grandparents house and they hadn’t said “we’re going to Grandma and Grandpa’s” and when they pulled off the freeway he started signing “Grandpa”. He was like 16 months old and they realized he knows exactly where we are and he knows exactly where we’re going. He wouldn’t have been able to share that with them, he didn’t have the word “Grandpa”.
The other thing it’s great for if your children don’t have clear speech, my daughter Lucy has spina bifida and cerebral palsy, she was two years old before she was able to sign and it took longer than that to speak, and when her words came they were very similar. And even for children without disabilities “ba” can mean “mom” it can mean “ball” it could mean “bye” it could mean “bottle” and so when they have the signs they are trying so hard to get the words out and you can just ask them, if you’re not sure “can you show me the sign?” and they show you the sign and now you know this is what they want. Even sometimes when they make up their own words you can ask them “can you show me the sign?” and they’re able to communicate that.
For older kids, it’s a second language. Junior highs, high schools, colleges it is a second language and so why not? It’s also a great parenting tool as far as if you are somewhere and your kids need to use the restroom, they don’t have to shout out “I need to go to the bathroom” they can sign it to you . In church they can sign “I would like a drink of water” and you say “OK, just hurry up and come right back” in sign and it just doesn’t disrupt anything.
Do you feel that signing is beneficial for children with autism or other developmental delays?
I actually just heard this morning from a school, it’s a preschool for children that have autism and they have Signing Time Fridays. And every Friday when the kids come in, Signing Time is playing and they sit down and sign along with it. What we have heard from families who have children with autism is that there is something that reaches them in using their bodies, the tactile motions, having the signs in their hands instead of just trying to say words. I’ve had families say “the first time my child ever said a word was when they signed it”. It gave them something concrete to connect it to. Instead of just trying to get the word out, they could sign the word “ball” they’re looking at their hands making that shape and they’re able to label it in a way instead of trying to get that word to come out on its own. I had no idea when we started Signing Time how many children it would impact. I thought well it’s for the Leahs of the world, the deaf kids, and for the Alexs, the kids that want to play with them. I didn’t know the impact it would have for my daughter Lucy with cerebral palsy, that signing would be her first language. I had no idea that in a couple years after launching Signing Time I would preforming at Down Syndrome Buddy Walks all over the country. They’ve got so many families who have children with Down Syndrome that rely on sign language to communicate. Same with families that have autism, it’s something with the music and the signing it reaches those kids that may not have communication any other way. It’s been a miracle for those families.
Lani saw on your website that there was a study that suggests teaching babies to sign will enable them to potty train sooner. Has this been your experience?
Yeah, when your child can communicate what’s going on with their bodies it takes all the guess work out of it. You aren’t going “Do you need to go? Do you need to go?” and they are or aren’t telling you. Like I said, signing is empowering. It really is empowering for you and your child. When that communication is set up and available they’re going to tell you what is going on in their world, and they’re going to tell you what is going on with their bodies.
Do you have any tips for introducing and teaching sign language to children?
It kind of depends on the age of the child. If you’re starting out with a newborn, you’re not going to see them signing back to you for a number of months, just because developmentally they aren’t there yet. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sign to them. So, if you have a newborn, or newborns I should say, you just start by signing milk. For milk you just open and close your fist, kind of like you’re milking a cow. You just sign milk when you are going to nurse or give them a bottle and say “Here’s your milk. Did you want milk? Milk milk milk” and pretty soon they’ll be crying and you’ll sign “milk” and say “Do you want milk?” and they’ll stop crying because they realize that their need is going to be met. The next step after that is they will be crying for milk and then they’ll stop and realize “oh I have a hand too” and they’ll start signing it and they won’t have to cry for it anymore, they’ll just sign milk. We typically recommend introducing a couple of signs, “milk” as they get a little bit older, “more”. For feeding times, like Cheerios, give them one and you say “Do you want more?” and you sign “more” and give them one. You can even help them sign it, but incorporating “more” is great. “Milk” and “more” are typically kids first signs. Other signs you might just want to use even when they’re babies are “mom” and “dad”, “sleep” and things that are just in their world.
In the first video of Signing Time we teach the 18 most common signs that babies start with. Those signs are the signs Leah started with as a deaf child and they were the same signs Alex started with as a hearing child. They were things that they cared about and wanted to communicate about, including birds and dogs and cats and shoes, you know? Toddlers love their shoes! And we had to throw “mom” and “dad” in there because parents would be upset if we didn’t, but really “mom” and “dad” those signs come after “fish” and after “airplane” and after “car” because they don’t need to sign it to you. Just keep signing with your newborns and introducing new signs as you need them. As they become toddlers you may introduce that it’s “sleep time”, it’s “bath time”, when you’re changing them you can be signing “potty” and they’re going to make that connection. When they make that connection they will let you know when they need their diaper changed, or they’re about to need their diaper changed.
If your kids are older, if you have toddlers, if they’re already doing “pat-a-cake” or already waving “bye bye” or asking to be picked up with signs, they’re going to take off. Typically you start introducing signs, it’ll take a little bit for that first sign to come and then there will be a language explosion that follows. Show them videos, unless you are opposed to watching videos, then you can watch them. Parents can learn from our DVD’s and incorporate those signs at home. You have to do this together. Sitting your kid in front of Signing Time and they learn 200 signs it’s not going to do their caregivers any good. People will still be frustrated in that environment because it takes everybody communicating together.
If you have older children, and a range of ages, it’s so ideal because they are going to teach the kids too. Elementary school aged children love signing, they feel like it’s their secret second language. They can communicate without talking, you know which has its benefits in the car on road trips, things like that. I learned my manual alphabet, American Sign Language ABC’s, when I was 8 years old and was a Brownie. I never ever ever forgot them, and that’s all I knew. When we found out Leah was deaf that’s where I started from 13 years ago.
I saw on Nick Jr. that you are featured on the “Move to the Music” segments, are you going to be doing a show on Nick Jr?
We were on public television for three years and we had the 26 DVD episodes on public television. The company is just me and my sister, Emilie, Alex’s mom and we are in Utah, and we have not been able to get a corporate sponsor. We could not commit to another year on public television because of the cost, we cannot do this without a corporate sponsor. We looked at all the big companies and we have not been able to secure that so far, we’re still working on it and still looking and we really do believe the right partner is out there. Someone that gets that this is not just about deaf kids, this is about communication for all children of every single ability. It’s arts and it’s language, it’s music. Emilie and I decided to pull Signing Time from public television last year and just focus on looking for a sponsor, in the meantime we were working with Nick Jr. on creating music videos and we’re really excited to have those available on Nick. Right now our agreement is that they have a number of Signing Time music videos and depending on the popularity of that, that would ideally be the next step, but that is not currently in the agreement.