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In my experience, older kids think of sign language as a secret code to unlock. They love learning to sign because it gives them a way to “talk in code” with their friends. Once kids learn how to sign the alphabet, they can have entire conversations by finger-spelling. (Shhh! Don’t tell them signing is also good brain food!).
Signing also offers an opportunity for older kids to express sensitive topics without saying the words out loud. Saying, "I'm sorry" falls into this category. When I was a kid, one of my favorite television shows was "Happy Days." Henry Winkler's character, "The Fonz," was incapable of saying the words, "I'm sorry." I distinctly remember an episode where he could get as far as "s-sah-sor-sor-sorrr," but he could not muster the full phrase, "I'm sorry."
It can be similarly awkward or embarrassing for a young person to say the words, "I apologize" or "I'm sorry" out loud, even when that child is sorry for what they've done. In public places and spaces I've witnessed power struggles erupting when a parent or caregiver insists that a child apologize for something they've just done. ("Say you're sorry. Johnny, you need to apologize to your friend. Look him in the eye and say you're sorry . . . "). Offering a child a choice to apologize with their words or with their signs can give them an opportunity to maintain their dignity (and personal power) while still apologizing for their actions.
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Likewise, when one of my kids has said something particularly sharp and hurtful to me, I've been known to sign "hurt" over my heart, to indicate that their words stung. Somehow this is easier to hear than similar words that are said out loud. There have been times that one of my kids has erupted emotionally, and I've quietly signed "hurt" over my heart, and just as quietly my child has signed "sorry" back to me and then come in for a reconciliatory hug. The emotions needed to be expressed, but the words didn't need to be said out loud for that to happen. Sign language came to the rescue once again, offering a bridge to communication.
Some things are just easier/more convenient to sign than to say out loud. Many teachers I know ask their students to use the sign for "toilet" or "thirsty" to ask permission to leave the classroom to use the restroom or get a drink of water.
One of my favorite classroom management strategies that is useful for all ages is to have kids to raise their hands with an informational sign instead of just raising (waving!) their hand in the air when they have something to say. Here is how it works: Teach students the signs for the letters "Q," "A" and "C." Ask kids to raise their hand by making the sign for "Q" when they have a question, "A" when they have an answer, or "C" when they have a comment. Going forward, when you facilitate a classroom discussion and hands go in the air, you can prioritize who to call on based on the signs they indicate (e.g. by calling on the kids who have answers to your question instead of the ones who still want to provide comments about the topic . . . or their pet frog). Here is a more in-depth article about this strategy by author/education consultant Rick Morris. NOTE: Morris uses the letter "I" (for "I have a question") instead of the letter "Q to identify questions, but the overall strategy of using sign language to distinguish between students with questions/comments/answers is similar to the approach I use).
Once you've introduced older kids to a little bit of sign language, it's not uncommon that they will be interested in learning more. Lora Heller's, "Sign Language for Kids"and Penny Warner's "Learn to Sign the Fun Way" are great resources with lots of fun signing activity ideas. Older kids are particularly keen on self-guided learning. Students can easily navigate online dictionaries such as www.signing savvy.com and www.lifeprint.com, and Dr. William Vicor's ASLUniversity offer's a great self-guided learning program that students can explore at their own pace. In addition, my series of blog posts entitled,"Capture that Story," provides a self-directed learning experience that can incorporate sign language.
And, for those kids who are really interested in signing, I offer complimentary 20-30 minute SKYPE (or FaceTime) Q and A sessions as well as Email Q and A sessions (in addition to traditional school/library visits). For more info, click here, or to schedule a visit, send me a message via the contact form on the left sidebar.
I would love to hear some of your experiences incorporating sign language into your communication and/or learning environment with older children. I look forward to your comments and messages!