Easy to print version

Signs of the Times
Stop! No! Help! say talking hands
By Suki Casanave '86G

It's midday at UNH's Child Study and Development Center and 17-month-old Lena Nicholson is having lunch. She's polishing off her cheese and crackers, but what she's really after is a cookie. So she asks. She can't use words, though, since she isn't talking yet. Instead, she uses her hands to make the sign for cookie--a "C" shape with one hand placed in the palm of her other hand. When she asks for another, teacher Sarah Leonard '00 shakes both hands in the sign for "all gone." Minutes later, palm against her cheek, she asks to be put down for a nap. No words. No fussing or crying. But she gets her message across loud and clear. Gently, she is picked up and whisked away for naptime.

"Using sign language really does cut down on their frustration level," says Diane Bertrand, lead teacher in the infant room. And less frustration means less crying, whining, biting, kicking and other behaviors that tend to surface when children are struggling to be understood. Signing is so common here at UNH that the room is full of "talking hands." Both teachers and children as young as nine or 10 months integrate simple aspects of American Sign Language into their daily interactions.

Bertrand remembers how it began, back in the late '80s, long before signing with young children became popular and commercialized. "The parents of one of our children asked us to work with their child on signs the child was learning to communicate with her aunt, who was deaf." Pretty soon the staff realized that signing was a great communication tool.

"What's wonderful," says John Nimmo, associate professor of family studies and executive director of the center, "is seeing children use signs to communicate with each other. It's not just about getting their own needs met. It's also about learning to pay attention to others. It's the basis of being more articulate."

In the toddler room (for children between 18 months and two years), teacher Harlee Tuttle sees children communicating with their peers every day. Stop! No! Help! Little hands are emphatic as they sign these three most frequently used commands. "They often use signs when someone is invading their space," says Tuttle, "which is a big issue for this age group."

While some parents fear their children will fall behind on developing speaking skills if they become fluent in signing, UNH teachers point to studies that suggest the opposite is true. They also point to their own experience--and to children like Lena. "We've found it to be the opposite," says Bertrand. "Signing actually helps them develop more quickly. It's a wonderful way for them to communicate."

Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents