Baby Sign Language in the Child Care Environment

Over the past four years, patient baby sign language has emerged as a communication tool for parents,clinic families and child care workers around Australia. Being able to respond to a child’s needs brings less tantrums and stress for children, and also, makes the job of a child care worker a much more positive experience each day. For those of you who are currently not using it in your child care centre, the question you must be asking is “What is baby sign language, why should I use it and how can it be helpful to me?” To help me answer these questions, I have asked child care workers who have incorporated Australian Baby Hands into their centres to find out what their experience of using baby sign language is and how it has impacted their lives.

Baby sign language is the practise of using simple sign language to assist parents, family or child care workers to communicate with pre-verbal babies. Most child care centres will use a form of sign language or gestures when communicating with babies or NESB (Non English speaking background) children. Gestures will be used to tell them to get their hat, or to ask if they want some food or a drink.

Australian Baby Hands uses the national sign language of Australia (Auslan), which allows parents and professionals to borrow from an already established set of signs. The beauty of using a standard sign system is that all carers and children are able to communicate effectively, and parents can become involved as well.

Nesha O’Neil of Midson Road Child Care Centre NSW highlighted what attracted her to using baby sign language and in particular, Australian Baby Hands. “Many of us have experienced the frustration of working with a child who is upset and is asking for a particular thing, and we can’t figure out what it is. It’s only later when mum, or grandpa says ‘oh he means…’ that we know what it is that they wanted (eg “de de” means “dummy” to one child but “Aunt Dianne” to another). It’s a similar idea when using gestures, or sign, with the children. If you are using a standard sign everyone knows what is being communicated – and you have the benefit of it being the basis of Auslan” said Nesha.

So what are the other benefits of introducing baby sign language into your child care centre? Centres who have started using Baby sign have reported the following:

  • A calmer less frustrated environment for both the childcare workers and children. As children are able to communicate their needs and wants, there are less temper tantrums.  Staff have reported that it’s much easier to be patient with a crying child if they’re signing “please”.
  • As Australia is a very multi-cultural country, childcare centres usually have children from numerous cultural backgrounds. As a result these children have been exposed to many different languages such as English, Mandarin, French, Russian, Spanish etc. By introducing baby sign language, there is one common language among all the children and this assists with integration among these different cultural groups.
  • Children are polite and are encouraged to use “please” and “thank you” when asking for or receiving things.  Lorna King of Norwest Child Care Centre NSW said “What’s really rewarding is watching the development of manners in children at a very early age that doesn’t happen with regular language development. All of our children sign ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ at meal times and when playing with others. It’s much easier for staff to model signing these words, than insisting on children saying them.”
  • Baby sign language results in children developing an extensive vocabulary and they are hungry to learn more.
  • Some children acquire spoken language quicker than children who had never been exposed to sign language.
  • Childrens self-esteem and self-confidence increase as they are able to communicate their needs, wants and interests through signing.
  • Baby sign also stimulates brain development resulting and studies have highlighted that signing children had a 12 point higher I.Q. than non-signing children in future I.Q. tests.
  • Baby sign language allows you to highlight to children what is about to happen.   Nicole Wade, a child care worker at Midson Road Child Care Centre demonstrates this – at the sign for ‘Nappy Change Please’ one toddler jumps up and waddles towards the change room.
  • Baby sign language is a tool to teach social skills and conflict resolution. Signs that can help improve a child’s social skills include “hello”, “goodbye”, “sorry”, “help”, “stop”,  “please” and “thank you”. All these signs are featured in both the Australian Baby Hands book and DVD. Melinda Ellis, an Early Childhood Teacher, said “the ‘stop’ sign is very useful when teaching conflict resolution and social skills to all children.”
  • Parents all over the country are incorporating this into their homes.  By learning baby sign language, you can establish yourself as a practising baby sign language centre and use it as a promotional tool for your centre.

And finally another benefit is that it is FUN for everyone involved.
To start using baby sign language in your child care centre, here are a couple of tips to get you started:

  • Train everyone in the centre in baby sign language – it’s no use having one person signing. To do this, the Australian Baby Hands Child Care Pack is a great resource to get you started.
  • Announce it to parents, and perhaps invite them in for an ‘introductory’ session.  The Child Care Pack has a sample newsletter that you can send out to parents explaining what baby sign language is and what it will mean for them.  If you have an ‘introductory session’, you can supply parents with a free baby sign language chart which is provided in your pack.  Remember, signing at home will support signing at your centre.
  • Follow the ‘Steps to signing success’ outlined in the Australian Baby Hands Child Care pack.
  • Have plenty of displays and information on baby sign language around your centre.
  • Signing and singing songs is great fun and a great way to introduce baby sign language to your child care centre.  Some centres exchange some of their ‘traditional’ finger play songs and rhymes with signs.
  • Baby sign language can be introduced to children of all ages, even older children who are speaking.  Research has highlighted that baby sign language is beneficial to children even right up to their primary school years.  Baby sign language also allows older children to be able to communicate with their younger siblings.

As you can see, there are many benefits to introducing baby sign language into the child care environment and getting started is quite easy to do. Happy Signing!