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Signs to support all children

I first started using British Sign Language as Sign Supported Speech in my setting when I became a registered Childminder in 2010.

When I was younger I remember watching an old black and white film about a true story of a young deaf, blind and mute girl called Helen Keller and how her teacher, Anne Sullivan, stubbornly stuck to training and teaching this wild child with challenging behaviour to finally understand the world around her and be able to communicate. The film was called The Miracle Worker and that film, especially the famous "water scene" struck a chord with me and made a huge impression in my interest in understanding how the brain and senses linked to communication and language.

In 2005 I became a 1:1 keyworker for a nursery aged boy who had a sensorineural hearing loss, speech and global developmental delay and very challenging behaviour. As a baby he had contracted meningitis which had
damaged his cochlears so had a severe hearing loss and no formal speech. He had now started nursery and been given a set of hearing aids to help with picking up sound.

My first day with him took me back to that film as he did nothing but run around screeching and snatching, jumping in sand/water trays, mistreating others and the toys, throwing his hearing aids out and causing general chaos. So I trained in Makaton, took myself off in the evenings to my local deaf class and funded my own training in BSL level 1 and started to use the signs with spoken speech and visual aids/pictures with this child. I also enrolled on a BTEC Level 3 Advanced Award in Working with Sensory Impaired Young People to help me with background knowledge and support strategies.

After a few weeks, I remember the first day it all started to click. He was sat outside in the sunshine looking at a book and saw an ice cream on the page. He pointed to it, looked at me, signed the word (clenched fist and tongue licking) and smiled. I nearly cried! It really was a tremendous moment and one I'll never forget. I realised how something so simple as visual gestures with speech could open the door to a child's ability to communicate.

Weeks turned into months and his signing continued and he developed muted speech and by the time he started reception he was writing his name independently and counting and playing happily. I taught the other children signs so they could communicate with him and it was wonderful to see him chatting and signing with his friends.

When I became a childminder I continued using BSL as SSE with visual aids with all the young babies and toddlers I had cared for and I found that they took to it really well. I explained to parents how I felt that helping children learn visually as well as auditory was beneficial and they were all supportive.

They saw the benefit and difference it made in helping their children communicate independently as they grew and it also reduced toddler tantrums and peer/sibling confrontations. It starts with simple signs such as hello, please, thank you, milk, sorry, drink, eat etc. and bit by bit I introduce more as they start to understand and say more themselves.

The parents wanted to learn the signs too so they could understand what their child was trying to say verbally and signing so it was continuity for their child at home.

Over the years I have looked after several children with speech delay (tongue tie, Down Syndrome) conductive hearing loss (glue ear) and it also includes my own youngest daughter, pictured right, with me, who was diagnosed with glue ear at 8 months old. Her language has come on in leaps and bounds since turning 2 and I believe the signing with speech has helped massively. I also attend a local weekly toddler dance group and sing/sign with the children as it is perfect for all those nursery rhymes and tunes we all know and sing and it keeps it fresh in my mind so I don't forget too much. (Use it or lose it!)

I encourage anyone to learn to sign as it's a great skill which can be utilized across many different ages and abilities and backgrounds. I believe that sign supported speech (SSE) is a great tool in being able to help all young children develop speech and language whatever their abilities or needs, whether hearing or deaf or visually impaired and can also be really helpful for children with EAL. I have seen firsthand how it seems to enhance their language/vocabulary development.

As a member of the National Deaf Children's Society, there has been much research from charities such as these and other organisations. Over the years, studies have been conducted and continue to be assessed involving language and communication development and connections to the brain.

Links have been found about how language is processed where spoken language triggers the auditory cortex and visual information is processed through the primary visual cortex and how it all interlinks and compliments
each part.

We all know that from birth, children are tactile "hands on" learners and by teaching and supporting language development more kinaesthetically through SSE can have positive results overall and it's fun and engaging. So if you're interested in learning to sign with your children as an extra skill and to help build on language development, or you have a specific child with speech or hearing issues and feel it will benefit them, then contact a local BSL tutor or Makaton tutor for class info. Or you could ask your local nursery/preschool if they have any sessions booked so you can join in. You can also learn BSL online through for a taster.

It starts with small steps but the benefits I have personally seen with my own daughter and other children over the years have been my own little "Helen Keller" moments in their developmental journeys and it's a privilege
to be a part of it.

Little Chicks Childminding

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