16th August 2018

Avoiding Toddler Meltdowns Through Signing

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I recently learned from the fabulous Jo at Little Signer's Club (North London) of the amazing benefits of signing for verbal children. If, like me, you assumed that baby signing was just for, well, babies, read this amazing guest blog to find out how signing equips your toddler with a hugely effective way of avoiding meltdowns.



Baby Signing. It’s For Babies… Right?

By the time most little ones are two years old they can (usually) walk. They’re probably talking too, they’ve got some two or three word  sentences, they know what they want, when they want it, how they want it, and they’re not afraid to tell you. Right? So why would you bother teaching a ‘hearing’ talker or a toddler to use Sign Language?

Well….. Have you ever seen a toddler throw themselves on the floor in frustration? Ever had to push them screaming in their buggy around a busy supermarket? Ever had your little one plank as you desperately try to fold them in to a car seat?

This is where Baby Signing comes in. It can make a lasting difference to your little one’s ability to cope with life’s frustrations, and have a life-long impact on their communication and literacy skills in general.


behaviour as communication

It is important to remember, (especially with little ones who are still very new to the planet, when you stop and think about it); behaviour is communication. Children who don’t know how to communicate their ‘Big Feelings’ or urgent needs will quickly and naturally resort to lashing out or biting or meltdowns. Even if they have the words, it takes massive amounts of muscle co-ordinations, breathing regulation and mental processing to get the words out. Ever been so angry or tired you couldn’t get the words out properly? Exactly, and you’ve had way more practice at talking than your small person.

Signing takes a fraction of the effort and can help a child show you their needs instantly.  

Let’s also consider that some children naturally take longer to talk than others - your two year old may not be exploring words sounds yet, and even if they are, they may not be delivering perfect elocution for some time. Not all children conform to the ‘norm’ and may take a little longer to get some of their speech sounds perfected. For hearing children, Sign Language bridges that gap. It helps to support emerging language structure and reduces the frustration which often leads to meltdown.

Once speech has started, words can be indistinct and toddlers find themselves stumbling over words. (You know, like us parents do when we’ve had no sleep, no coffee and no shower and it’s somehow 3pm and where did the day go?).

At this stage toddlers know and understand plenty of words, ideas, concept and emotions. But their ability to verbalise most of them won’t develop for another 6 months.

Imagine how frustrating that would be - knowing what you need, knowing that there is someone on hand who loves and cares for you, who would willingly meet that need - but you just can’t explain what it is. I’d throw myself on the floor too.

How signing can help 

Signing supports toddlers and talkers through this period in several ways:

Important grown ups understand little ones - and little ones can understand important grown ups - without shouting

The two communication tools of speech and Sign work together, so that if your little one’s speech is a little indistinct still, the use of the Sign will help make sure you know what they need before they reach meltdown stage.

From a parenting point of view, Signing is an invaluable tool when out and about. Using Signs for ‘stop’, ‘danger’, ‘wait’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ (and many others) provides a way to communicate without drawing attention to the child or the behaviour.

Encourages and supports emerging speech & language skills

When a ‘babble’ is accompanied by a Sign, grown ups can speak the words back to their toddler, reinforcing the right sounds and pronunciation.

Children are also developing their language skills by learning another language (BSL is classed as a Modern Foreign Language).

Signing with BSL can be especially helpful in a bilingual household as the Sign becomes a link between the two languages, helping children to ‘anchor’ the labels for an object, action, concept or emotion.

Gives confidence to little talkers

Where little ones might be shy of speaking in front of strangers, or worried that their words might not be understood, Signing supports their efforts. It gives them confidence in their ability to communicate their needs and interests effectively, bringing meaning to everyday activities. For example, Signing allows a child to ask to go to the toilet without announcing it to their class or a room full of strangers. It gives less confident children a simple way of asking for help or sharing information.

Supports kinaesthetic learning styles

Most children (and many adults) learn kinaesthetically - through action and ‘doing’. Signing is described as ‘language in motion’ - giving little ones an additional layer of learning on top of auditory and visual, supporting more effective learning.  For example, using Signs for colours, numbers, names and questions, allows children to experience learning at a much deeper level. Older children (7+) can especially benefit from using Sign language to help with spelling; the physicality of spelling words on your fingers provides a deeper understanding and knowledge.

Signing reduces aggressive behaviours very effectively

Because communication is clear, understood and responded to, children are far less stressed and frustrated. Biting, for example, is a behaviour which indicates frustration. Got a little biter on your hands? Signing could really make a difference.

Signing is great for improving or advancing motor skills

Good dexterity opens up a whole new world to little ones, allowing them to safely handle small and unusual objects. Signing brings an awareness of the hands and fingers and how they can be moved and manipulated into different shapes. Studies show that even 4 and 5 year olds will have difficulty with their fine motor skills and Signing can help to develop this.

Of course there are children for whom Signing will become a very necessary part of their communication needs. But for the majority we work with, Signing is great fun, easy and quick to learn and the solution to a lot of life’s problems. It’s tough being a toddler!

When taught correctly for hearing children, Signing is always replaced by speech once a little one feels confident with the spoken word. Children will sometime use Signs to emphasise their spoken words (usually ‘now!’ or ‘more!’) but as they become better able to communicate verbally, the Signs will fade out and leave speech in place, usually at a more advanced level compared to non-Signing peers.

And let’s not forget the most important reason to take your toddler or talker to a Baby Signing class….

It’s enormous fun! Meet other, like-minded parents, have a much-needed cuppa, get a bit silly in a non-judgemental setting and enjoy watching your little one’s face light up as they realise they have another tool in their communications box.

about the author 

Jo Emmerson is the leader for Little Signers Club; North London. Working with the award winning Little Signers Club company, Jo delivers Baby Signing classes in the Haringey area and to private organisations and networks across London. Little Signers Club uses British Sign Language to aid children from 3 months to 5 years with their communication skills. The classes help pre-verbal children find their ‘voice’, they help toddlers find calm and the help all little people with their speech, communication and literacy skills. Classes are open to all abilities and nationalities. Jo also works with nursery and day care facilities to provide enrichment to their EYFS provision, and works to deliver private sessions for confidence building and language development for individual families and small groups.



Jo Emmerson




About Little Signers Club

Little Signers Club (www.LittleSignersClub.co.uk) was founded in 2010, by Shelley Betts, one of the UK’s leading authorities on Baby Signing. We aim to make caring for little ones a happy, memorable, learning adventure by providing expertly taught  baby and toddler Signing classes, delivered with love. We are the industry leaders, with decades of experience in teaching, speech and language, parenting and more. Little Signers Club is the only Baby Signing organisation in the UK to have tutors licenced by ICAN (the children’s communications charity).

Our key inspiration comes from the following people, research and organisations to create rich, fun and dynamic courses and training that supports each parenting journey:

Dr Joseph Garcia, the world’s leading expert on Baby Signing.

Marilyn Daniels, Leading researcher in Signing with older children.

Cath Smith, one of the most highly regarded British Sign Language Early Years authors in the UK.

Magda Gerber, Leading voice on respectful parenting.

Margot Sunderland, author of 'What Every Parent Needs to Know' and child development expert.

Sue Gerhardt, author of 'Why Love Matters' and child development expert.

Abraham Maslow, renowned psychologist.

We have won numerous awards for our work, and work closely with the National Literacy Trust, and ICan (the children’s communication charity).


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