By Janet Simons, Rocky Mountain News
It's not enduring the temper tantrums or picking up the toys strewn across the room, or even tending to the endless cycle of colds and flus. No, for parents of toddlers, one of the biggest challenges is simply struggling to communicate. Take, for example, what happens when the child gestures toward the refrigerator.
Mom opens the door and points helpfully at the items inside.
" Do you want juice?" she asks.
Head shake and a slight frown.
Finally, a smile, and Mom unwraps a cheese stick.
By age 1, however, children who have learned sign language usually have vocabularies of 20 to 40 words. In addition to being able to ask for cheese, they can tell their parents if they're thirsty, sleepy, wet or have a sore throat.
Michelle Anthony estimates that as many as 800 babies and toddlers have learned to communicate using American Sign Language through her Signing Smart workshops and play groups since she began offering them in Denver in January 2000. Similar classes have cropped up throughout the nation as parents strive to learn what's on the minds of children too young to talk.
At a recent Signing Smart play group in a church basement in central Denver, 17-month-old Marcus Garcia sat on the lap of his mother, Lisa Garcia, and made signs for light and spider.
"Today we're learning words about the outdoors," said instructor Rebecca MacLean, as she handed out plastic butterflies. Marcus soon had added the sign for butterfly to his repertoire.
"This class has truly opened a window into his mind," his mother said. "It's the best thing I've ever done with him. Without it, I would never know when he wants to brush his teeth or take a bath."
The session was the last of the series - the second 10-week series for identical twins Mia and Stella Marchetta-Hayden, 20 months.
Their father, Robert Hayden, said the classes were helpful from the start.
"Stella and Mia were about 1 when we started, and they didn't have many spoken words," said Hayden, executive sports producer at Channel 9. His wife, Theresa Marchetta, the twins' mother, is a Channel 7 anchor.
"Since they're twins, sharing was a big issue," Hayden said. "We learned in this class that at 12 months, they're too young to understand sharing, but they can get the concept of taking turns."
At their first class, the twins learned the sign for turn, pointing back and forth from one to the other.
"It was huge," Hayden said. "They were able to understand that when they both wanted the same juice cup, they could have it - just not at the same time."
Hayden says life with the twins has improved steadily with increased communication.
"It has been a way for them to let us know some of their frustrations," he said.
Anthony has a master's degree in child studies and a doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of California at Berkeley. She developed her program based on research by psychology professors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, who first worked on signing to hearing babies and toddlers in 1982, and by educator Joseph Garcia of Bellingham, Wash., who first recommended that standard American Sign Language be used.
Anthony approaches sign language through her child-development background, introducing the signs for words when children are ready to use them.
"For example, one of the first signs we teach is the word for light," she said. "It's something children see from their cribs and they're curious about it, but they don't have any way to ask what it is. The children use that word constantly once they know it."
Anthony is one of the first in the field to focus on play groups rather than on teaching ASL at parent workshops. At the play groups, she explains, parents and children practice together until signing becomes a familiar form of communication.
"We want to make signing accessible to young parents, so they can integrate it into their everyday lives and communicate easily," she said.
Research by Acredolo, of the University of California at Davis, and Goodwyn, of California State University at Stanislaus, indicates that children who learn sign language as babies gain IQ points.
The pair studied the effects of baby sign language for 10 years under a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health. They compared families that were baby-signers and families that weren't, checking in each six months until the children were 3. They found consistently superior performance by the baby-signers in vocal, cognitive and emotional development.
When they tested 7-year-olds who had been in the study as babies, Acredolo and Goodwyn found that the baby-signers averaged 12 points higher on standard IQ tests than the control group.
In April, Acredolo and Goodwyn founded Baby Signs Inc., based in Vacaville, Calif.
"We now have 80 consultants offering workshops in eight states," said Goodwyn, noting that Colorado is not among them. The professors also continue to pursue research. Goodwyn said they are about to unveil a study of how sign language enhances the interaction between babies and their caregivers.
Goodwyn would have no trouble convincing Christy Ochs, who attends Signing Smart workshops with 13-month-old Hawk Peterson. She has been his nanny since he was 6 weeks old.
Ochs has noticed enormous strides in Hawk's language development since he started the class. She said she has been impressed with Hawk's mastery of subtle concepts such as "gentle."
"He's at that age where he grabs hair and pulls," she said. "When he did that the other day, I took his hand, patted it and made the sign for gentle and said the word gentle. He said the word gentle back to me just as clear as a bell."
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