Part 2: Teaching baby to sign: phase 2 (8 months+)

Welcome back! If you’ve followed the procedures in part 1 of this blog and your baby is older than 8 months, you’re ready to move on. I consider 8 months to be the very earliest you can start the next phase of sign language training, so don’t be discouraged if your baby is not quite ready at this age. Wait another month or two and the closer they get to 1 year, the better equipped they’ll be to handle the physical and language requirements of the process.

Now that you’ve established a solid foundation of signs through modeling and pairing language with objects of interest, you’re ready to start actively prompting your child to make the signs back to you. You’ll be starting what’s called mand training. Here is your step-by-step guide!

  1. Great news, you’ve already chosen the signs (as directed in part 1 of this blog series). As long your child still shows some interest in these items, you can use them. If they show interest in other things, simply identify those new things and learn the signs (or make up simple gestures as outlined in part #1 of this blog series).
  2. First, choose a few signs for objects that are common in your baby’s environment and preferably interesting to them. Some of the first signs I taught my son were book, light, mama, dada, and banana (all the important things in life, right??!)
  3. Hold the item in sight but out of reach
  4. You can play with the item, or otherwise make it interesting and it’s okay to wait a little until your baby expresses interest in having the item. Remember, when we teach a child to ask for something, we are focused on being sure they are motivated so if they are not motivated, we do not want to teach them to ask for it! Doing so would be like someone trying to convince you to buy a purse that you absolutely hate – just isn’t going to happen!
  5. Once your baby expresses interest by gesturing, looking toward, or babbling at the item, briefly model the sign and say the name of the item “book!” Make sure these actions are very fast – you don’t want to lose baby’s interest!
    1. If your baby imitates the sign, give him/her the book (or read it to them, whatever it is that they like to do with that object!) and say the name of the item a few more times (“book, book, book”!) remember to try and avoid excess language here. You want your baby to associate that sound with that object. Other words can become confusing. I once had a child I worked with who called a toy a “good job” because that’s all his parents said after he asked for the item! They never said the name so he thought the toy was called a “good job!” CUTE – but not quite what we want here!
    1. If your baby does not imitate the sign (it is highly likely they will not during the beginning stages of this process), simply take their little hands and form the sign to the best of your ability, saying the name of the item “Book.” Then, give them the book!!!
  6. Be sure the process is VERY Fast. If you go slow, your child will likely lose interest or might scream, cry or even hit to get the thing they want.

You did it! Feels official, doesn’t it?! You can repeat these steps for multiple items, and as many times as you want across the day! Here are some additional rules to follow:

  1. Avoid focusing on everything. Pick 3-5 main preferred objects and focus on those. If your baby thinks they have to sign for everything, they may lose interest and think the response effort is just too high and then be an unwilling participant.
  2. Look for independence. The more you repeat these steps, the more your baby will learn that they have to do something to get something. Reinforce (that is give your baby something good and some praise), these attempts, even if they’re not quite right. My son never really perfected the sign for light, but it was distinct enough from other signs that we just let him do the modification.
  3. Remember to stick to specific items – avoid general signs like more, eat, please. While these can be a little useful, the listener (mom, dad) are usually left trying to guess what a kid wants – they might walk into a room and sign “more” before they’ve even had anything, because they have learned that the sign “more” gets access to good stuff. Teach specific signs like cookie, apple, light, book, car, etc.
  4. LISTEN! Your baby will likely babble and make different sounds when they sign. This is exciting! It may seem like the sounds are unrelated, but if you listen carefully, my guess is that eventually you’ll start to hear approximations (e.g., “ah” for “apple”). When these approximations occur, and especially when one occurs for the first time – REINORCE! Throw a party! This is exciting and you want your baby to keep trying!
  5. Remember that just because your child vocalizes once or twice, doesn’t mean they will do it every time and you shouldn’t require it. Doing so will only result in frustration. View any vocals added to the sign right now as “extras” but we won’t expect or require them to happen independently until signs are firmly established.

This last tip leaves us at a nice ending point! In the final part 3 of this blog series, I’ll discuss dropping those signs and merging into full on vocal speech – an exciting milestone!

Happy signing (again!)

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