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Mel Gravely

Integrating Sign Language into the Head Start Classroom

This blog was provided by Dr. Michael Hubler, Social-Emotional Learning Specialist, and Lillian Hubler, Founder and President of Time to Sign (The Sign Language Education Experts – Time to Sign) for over 20 years. Dr. Hubler was the Executive Director of the Outstanding Minority Education Institution for the State of Florida and the Outstanding Humanitarian Organization for Central Florida. He was also the Space Coast Social Workers Citizen of the Year, as well as the Citizen of the Year for Brevard County, FL., for his work with children and families. The Gravely Group recently partnered with Time to Sign on a free webinar titled “Introduction to Sign Language to Enhance Communication & Social-Emotional Learning of Young Children?”

sign language head startA big part of our work in early childhood education involves learning to communicate, as well as learning the social and emotional skills necessary to behave well in the classroom and beyond. Long before children can speak they know what they want and naturally gesture with their hands and cry and scream to get our attention to get these wants and needs met. Sign language from birth enables them to communicate these wants and needs long before they are able to communicate verbally greatly enhancing their behavior. At four months old my youngest son could tell me he wanted milk, or more milk, simply by having me show him the sign for milk and more when giving him the milk. It only took about five times of being shown before he knew to do his best version of the sign to let me know what he wanted. Additionally, his behavior was exemplary, as he did not have to act out to get his wants and needs met, so he did not.

Sign Language Greatly Benefits Children Academically

Children who are taught sign language from birth, by age 2, have a 25% higher knowledge of language than their non-signing counterparts. Additionally, when we teach our young children to use their fingers, hands, and arms to do the signs we are enhancing their fine and gross motor skills.

The number of infant-toddler classrooms in Early Head Start and private day care chains and centers has dramatically increased in recent years as a result of this communication boost helping to meet the needs and wants of the children as it simultaneously improves their behavior. In speaking with a Head Start Executive Director just recently she recalled her first experience with a deaf child in her program. It was a two-year old for whom she sought out a language specialist to work with the teacher. The teacher in turn was able to teach and communicate with the child. To their surprise all the other children learned the signs to enable them to also communicate with the child to assist and befriend the child without explicitly being taught them. In hindsight she said of all her many centers and classrooms this was far and away the quietest and best behaved.

Dr. Marilyn Daniels, of Penn State University, did 17 years of research on the language and literacy benefits of teaching and using sign language in Head Start programs and found a dramatic boost in these skills for the children who learned sign language. More recent research helps to quantify exactly why she saw a boost in these all-important skills. In fact, young children who were taught sign language for a prolonged period of time receive on average a 12-point IQ boost per child. This is incredible, but the even better news is that this wonderful IQ boost stays with them, as these children maintain that advantage much later in life scoring 17% higher on standardized tests than their non-signing counterparts. Obviously, this greatly impacts what they can accomplish and even their trajectory in life.

But just how does this intellectual boost work you might wonder? When we communicate using speech and hearing, we are pre-wired from birth to the communication center behind our left ear in the brain. We can hear in the womb and once we are born we are gently smacked on the behind to see if we can make noise. Conversely, sign language comes in as a picture on the right side of the brain. This ‘picture’ needs to cross the brain over to the communication center. To do so requires that it create new synapse pathways from the right pictorial side to the left communication side. This actually increases the usage of the brain to provide this beneficial boost. They are simply using more of our brain than they would otherwise use.

Sign Language Also Helps Children Behaviorally

By giving even the youngest of children the ability to communicate their want, needs, and feelings helps them to get these all-important areas met. As a result, their behavior is dramatically improved. There is no need for them to act up, scream, or cry to get their wants or needs met.

But the wonderful benefits do not stop here research also shows that for the highly behaviorally challenged who suffer from ADD or ADHD, that the use of sign language can actually help to enhance their behavior. Simply by using sign language to express their feelings they are enabled the time they need to get out of their emotional brain (on the right) and into their logical brain (on the left), calm-down and problem solve instead of immediately reacting, which is their norm otherwise, which gets them in trouble for hitting, kicking, or biting someone. One easy example to understand would be teaching the sign for the emotion anger. “When we are angry we ball up both our fist down around our waist, then throw our fists over our shoulders.” This physically gets some of the aggression out that they are feeling, but also gives them the break they need to calm-down and problem solve by avoiding their typical immediate reaction. If this is proven to work for hyperactive children we know it will work all the better for those who are not.

Sign Language is Easy for Young Children to Learn

Young children can learn 4-5 language simultaneously and know who to use each one with. Here in America we get it backwards and wait until high school and college to learn additional languages long after we could have learned them much easier. 80% of signs are pictorial representations of what the word means. For example, the sign for eat is bringing you hand to your mouth as if you were eating. The sign for drink is to pretend (or motion) as if you are pouring a glass into your mouth. Starting at two years old children can learn 10 new words/concepts every single day. Adding sign instruction can help to maximize that learning.

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  1. Great article. I have taught American Sign Language (ASL) for over 20 years to my students, Preschool-G2. I have created downloadable ASL curriculum worksheets as well as Boom decks. These decks are interactive learning games that are fun and engaging for students to assist with their alphabet and phonetic skills, as well as sight words. These are great for developing Early Literacy and Reading Comprehension skills Also great tools for After School Programs . This is a Supplemental curriculum program for educators. I believe “Start them early while they’re having fun learning and they will enjoy their educational journey.”
    Diana L. Smith

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