SCCA plans ‘Baby Signs’ class

Published 9:55 pm Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Every parent has experienced the frustration of not knowing what their crying child wants or needs.

However, the Baby Signs program, which focuses on teaching babies and toddlers adapted American Sign Language to express their feelings, is working to change that — and a free Baby Signs workshop will be held at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts next week.

“It’s not your usual cultural arts fare, but it’s something that we thought would make us more relevant to the community,” said Paul Lasakow, executive director of the center. “When I was a young parent, I would have jumped at this.”

Ellen Baker did jump at it as a young mother of two, and she now instructs the class. She will give a free workshop on Baby Signs at 10 a.m. Jan. 13 at the center. Those who continue to be interested following the workshop can sign up for the full class, which begins Feb. 1 and runs for six weeks. The cost of the class is $30, with a materials fee of $70.

Baker, who used the class with her second son but not with her first, said there was a noticeable difference in how the babies communicated.

“I remember one time at two in the morning, I woke up and he was crying,” Baker said of her younger son. “He signed ‘hurt’ right by his mouth. I knew instantly he was teething.”

Baker immediately got teething medication for her son, and he was soon back asleep.

“I never even had to pick him up out of the crib,” Baker said.

Baby Signs teaches parents how to teach their children simple sign language. The signs begin with simple signs to express needs — “more,” “cereal,” “eat,” “drink” — and move on to more complex ones to express what the child is thinking about — “airplane” or “truck.”

“The goal is to get children to express their wants and needs and interests,” Baker said. “It provides parents with a window into what they’re thinking.”

The classes contain songs, games and activities to help children learn the signs. Each week has a different theme, such as mealtime, bath time or the park, Baker said. Next week’s workshop is specifically for parents to learn more about the program’s history and goals, Baker said.

Baby Signs is geared toward children up to age 3, but most children can start using signs around 9-11 months, Baker said — when the child has the cognitive ability to have thoughts and feelings, but not the verbal skills to express them.

The program can dramatically reduce frustration in the young parent’s household and be beneficial for parents, children and babysitters alike, Baker said.

“The sign ‘please’ is so much more pleasant to see than screaming and stomping of the foot,” Baker said. “The children get more positive feedback from the parents and have more interactions with them, and it helps parents realize there’s more going on in their child’s brain than they realize.”

Studies that followed children from completion of the class through age 8 found that children who had taken the class began talking earlier, had more expansive vocabularies and had IQ scores up to 12 points higher after adjustment for other factors, Baker said. She attributes that to the additional parental interaction.

“They wind up absorbing so much more of the language because you’re talking more,” Baker said.

Once children can talk, “they generally will drop signs because it’s just a lot easier to talk than to put your toy down and sign something,” Baker said. “There’s many, many benefits to it.”

Space for the Jan. 13 workshop is limited. To sign up for it, or for the class beginning Feb. 1, call 923-0003, ext. 3027.