When your baby has a hard time doing a sign, you can try to give them a hand, literally. I’ll warn that not all babies are receptive to having their hands manipulated. This is especially the case if you have a less touchy feeling relationship. I use touch frequently and use a lot of nonverbal communication with my son, so he’s used to being touched and is also used to touching. So for our family, physical prompting worked.
Above: A hands on technique to teaching the sign for CROCODILE. Dad and baby signing with books!
When I taught a new sign, I would ask my son if he wanted Dadda to help. As I brought my hands towards his, he would bring his hands up and offer them to me so that I could guide them. I personally find that silent communication is a more effective way to teach than trying to shout across a room. Besides, shouting is just not in my nature. I’d rather walk over to my son and whisper into his ear while gently pulling on a hand to modify his behaviour. I will also gently aim him toward another task by turning his shoulders to move him from places he shouldn’t be, or when he’s doing things he shouldn’t. I’m also a big fan of using “the look” to warn a baby or toddler not to do something. I think all parents should have a stern face that is fair warning not to push the line. Yet, I digress!
My point here is that small babies can be taught finer hand movements if you assist them in doing the sign by gently grasping their hands and assisting them through the movements. You can grab their hands from the front or when sitting behind them. If you sit behind them, you can show your baby how the sign looks from their perspective. This works well for signs that your baby finds hard to mirror. After helping your baby do the sign then do it yourself and repeat the word in a sentence. If you feel any resistance when manipulating your baby’s hands, simply drop them and use the modeling technique described above. By using physical prompting, I have taught my 15 month old son how to do a sign in less than five minutes! If a baby is reluctant to having their hands manipulated, then it sometimes helps to move behind them to show the sign from a different perspective, or by doing the sign on their body for them.
Above: Courtney explains how to help a baby do a sign by manipulating their hands for them. Not all babies are receptive to having someone else help, but if your baby is okay with it, you might want to give it a shot to produce some signs faster.
The last thing you want to do is create tension and frustration when you are trying to teach. It will be pretty obvious when your baby is having difficulty with signs and try as they might, the sign simply appears nothing like the real thing. Many ASL signs are also difficult for babies to do in general. Not only this, but a lot of signs tend to look similar because your baby just repeats the big movements of most signs dropping out the finer movements. Even after guiding your baby, the sign might only improve slightly anyway, but this is fine. All you want is for the sign to look a little bit more refined to prevent them from all looking exactly the same. This, by the way, is a fairly frequent result of teaching your baby a lot of signs. There are just so many ways a young toddler can move and manipulate their hands at this stage in their development.