Even before she could speak, Aria Hancock could already communicate with her parents. When she was about 9 months old, the little girl from Coeur d’Alene would let her mom and dad know she was hungry by waving her hand. At first, her parents thought she was saying “bye-bye,” but after paying attention to the way she tried to make a fist and her hand movements, they realized she was communicating “nurse” or “milk” in sign language.
Now that she’s a year old, Aria can sign about a dozen words and short phrases, including “food,” “drink,” “more,” “dog” and “All done!” Sometimes, she signs and says the words at the same time.
Last spring, Aria and her parents, Sherrie and Clois Hancock, took a baby sign language class from Sara Filanoski, a certified Baby Signs instructor who also has been working as an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter for more than 15 years.
After completing the five-week course, which was offered at Mother’s Haven in Coeur d’Alene, Sherrie and Clois Hancock started using basic signs to accompany the words they uttered whenever they communicated with Aria. Within weeks, Aria started signing back, her parents said.
“Babies understand a lot – long before they can speak,” said Aria’s dad. “It’s often frustrating for them when they can’t express how they feel, but by using sign language, it alleviates the stress for the baby and for the parents.”
When Aria cried in the past, her parents often had to go through a long list of possible causes. Is she hungry? Tired? Does she need a diaper change?
Now, when their daughter fusses, the Hancocks immediately start signing in addition to holding her, talking to her and asking questions. The hand gestures often calms her down, her parents said. Within minutes, Aria stops crying and starts moving her hands to “talk” to her mom and dad.
“We’re able to communicate with her on a different level,” said Sherrie, who works as a nurse. “We pay a lot more attention to what she does and the subtle little changes in her hand movements. She’s a lot less frustrated now that we know what she’s asking for.”
In the last few years, hundreds of parents, grandparents and caregivers from the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area have taken baby sign language courses from Filanoski, who also teaches parent groups and offers private classes.
These families are not deaf; they simply want to jump-start their children’s language development.
Baby sign language is a form of non-verbal communication that fosters understanding and trust, said Filanoski, the mother of a 13-month-old boy. Sign language gives families another means of communication, she said. Often, it can actually prevent or shorten tantrums among young children.
Some parents say the use of sign language also facilitates their baby’s ability to speak. Some kids have an easier time learning or saying a word when it is accompanied by a hand gesture, they said.
“Say it while you sign it, that’s the key,” Filanoski said.
Sign language also encourages family members to read facial expressions, body movements and other cues in addition to listening to kids.
“Babies are so eager to communicate and share their world with you,” said Filanoski. Signing gives them another means to do that, she said.
The best time to start learning and using sign language with children is before the child’s first birthday, she said. Some families start when their children are as young as 3 months old, but Filanoski and other experts say it’s probably best to wait until a child can keep consistent eye contact with her or his caregiver.
Toddlers, preschoolers and even older kids also benefit from sign language because it’s a way to improve their vocabulary, stimulate their learning and promote literacy.
The Baby Signs Program, which was developed by child development experts specifically for hearing babies, is based on American Sign Language, Filanoski explained.
During those early years, children lack fine-motor skills and aren’t always able to deftly move their fingers or sign with precision. That’s why parents and other family members have to learn how to read cues.
This often means being flexible and open to interpreting what their children’s hand movements might mean.
Filanoski, who is also a language arts teacher at Horizon Middle School in Spokane Valley, suggested a number of ways to teach sign language to babies and children: by using music, including signing as part of everyday activities, and while reading or looking at books. As you read the book, point to a picture and sign, she advised parents and caregivers.
After taking Filanoski’s class, the Hancocks practiced a few of the signs they learned on a consistent basis. They also bought a book by Joseph Garcia, one of the world’s leading experts on baby sign language, and used a laminated wall chart with images of the basic gestures.
Because Aria responded so well to their efforts to communicate, they’ve since taught some sign language to Sherrie Hancock’s mother and sister.
Learning sign language not only has stimulated Aria’s ability to learn and express herself, it has also brought them closer as a family.
“The fact that we can communicate has helped us bond and improve our relationship,” said Clois Hancock, a licensed massage therapist and orthopedic sales representative. “I feel very, very close to Aria. Sign language is also a lot of fun and it’s something we do as a family.”