How to Help Kids Communicate Better

If you have children, you will remember the time when you were juggling your new role as a parent with 1,001 things to worry about, amidst handling sleeplessness, wails, poo, pee and vomit.

One of the frustrations I had with my first child was not knowing what he needed when he cried and screamed incessantly. This was when a friend recommended a children’s sign language DVD programme.

“Sign language is for… the Deaf, right?” went through my mind but I agreed to check it out anyway.

I later found out that I was only half right.

My son enjoyed the signing program right from the start. In fact, my husband and I did so tremendously as well! The program was filled with catchy songs, colourful visuals, gestures and actions that in no time, we were all happily signing milk, juice, diaper, happy, sad, hurt, colours, and lots more words which hold meaning for an infant’s daily life.

It turned out that sign language is not just for the Deaf.

Undoubtedly, it is dominantly used by the Deaf community around the world yet it is a real language that can be taught to children as young as 6 months old to give them a “voice” when they previously had no way to express themselves.  In other words, babies and toddlers can learn to communicate through sign language before they can talk!

By the time my son turned two, he had such a wide vocabulary, and could communicate so well for his age, that many of our friends, particularly those who were parents, commended him on it.  I wanted to take all the credit for it of course (well, I did spend many happy hours reading and talking to him even whilst changing his diapers and creaming his bottom!).  But anecdotal evidence from friends with kids who had learned signing, suggested that their children seemed to be ahead of their peers, in terms of communication, too.

I was curious enough to find out more.

Does signing help hearing children communicate better?

Children have the capacity to understand, learn and communicate before they develop the ability to speak.   Babies can sign at around 6 to 14 months, which is generally before they learn to speak clearly.  Signing can be another way for them to express themselves, and could reduce their frustration at not being understood, and often tantrums that result from that.

Children learn in different ways.  Some learn better by hearing, some by seeing, some by doing stuff with their own hands.  Signing could be particularly useful for tactile and kinesthetic learners.

In particular, signing can have amazing results with children who have speech and communication challenges.  It is increasingly being used for children with Down Syndrome, Autism, Apraxia of Speech, and speech delays, with very positive results.

Research by Drs Acredolo and Goodwyn suggests that hearing children who had signed using gestures as babies scored 12 points higher in IQ tests compared to a control group who did not use gestures for communication.   Signing with hearing children may also improve their confidence, encourage an interest in books, and also support their spelling and reading skills.

Will signing delay a child’s speech?

Parents that sign with their children frequently confirm that their children tend to speak earlier than those who are not exposed to signing.  This is because signing helps them to associate a physical movement with the corresponding concept and the vocalization or sound of a spoken word.

Parents get excited when their baby communicate by waving goodbye or by extending a flying kiss to them.  They would not worry about the child not learning to say ‘goodbye’ or ‘I love you’ eventually.  These kinds of gestures are just like signs, and by introducing sign language, can take communication to a whole new level.

Some parents may claim that signing with their baby delayed his or her speech.  It is just as likely that the child would have had a speech delay anyway – with or without signing.   There are many children who will experience delayed speech, who don’t ever sign.  If a child does have delayed speech, signing for communication is better than no communication.

Our experience

We did not set out to try to improve our child’s communication skills when we first introduced him to signing.  It was really just to let him have an enjoyable, age-appropriate programme to watch.  But it worked out to be so much more than that for us – it was a fun programme for parents as well, and gave us a shared experience with our son, that helped him to communicate better, and taught us a useful second language (or should we say, third language?).

If you are keen to try it out, the programme we used was Signing Time from the U.S, and you can buy the DVDs locally online at


Am I helping or handicapping?

It is always a joy playing with my children. (It reminds me of how old I am but that’s another story altogether…)

When they were younger, their play was simple yet still lots of fun. As they grow up, what they play with gets more complex and involves more imagination and the weaving in of stories.

Sometimes when I watch my four year-old trying to figure out a puzzle or a Lego piece (and sometimes, homework), I get very tempted to step in and “solve the problem” for him.

And the temptation is very really.

I mean I justify to myself that at the end of the day, what he wants is to enjoy the completed toy or finish the work. So, why shouldn’t I help him get there faster?

Here’s the problem.

After several of my helping, my son simply came to me the next time, handed me the toy and said, “Papa, can you help me fix this up, please?”

It can be a very simple task which he can complete easily on his own but he will still ask for help. And expects to get it.

That kinda stopped me in my tracks. And got me thinking.

What I realized was that children are such learning experts. (I wonder when and how many of us actually decided to stop learning…) We don’t have to teach them how to learn. They simply do and do so quickly and superbly.

And a large part of learning is seeing patterns.

What my son has learned in this case is that he can get to his objective quickly and “painlessly” by having me do the work.

Nothing wrong with this.

But this ends-mindedness has deprived him of the process through which he will gain so much more.

I mean, I am not going to be around to help him all the time, all his life. Nobody will be.

He must learn to make right decisions on his own. He must choose his own path, learn to be independent, to stand alone, and to deal with setbacks.

And he can only master these essential life skills by going through the process and not taking shortcuts.

The lesson for me, of course, is that I should never provide shortcuts that will handicap my children’s learning!

The Art of Creative Distraction

Have you been in a situation like this?

Your toddler is upset about something and the only thing he will do is cry, wail and… scream.

Nothing you say or do will help the situation.

The next thing you know, he is throwing tantrum on the floor, kicking and thumping away on all fours. (I have seen this at the supermarkets, bookshops as well as … toy shops.)

Obviously, the tantrum is purpose-driven. And kids are great with this. They are very specific in their demands and will go through great lengths to achieve their objectives.

It seems my own parents (and most of their generation) did not believe in giving in to children’s “unreasonable” demands. And so, my own experience growing up is that my parents will exert their authority and ignore my demands (with loud, stern voices and their hands on their hips). If I had continued with my tantrums, I would have gotten a spanking which is too much pain compared to not getting what I wanted at the moment.

Definitely, getting our children to stop their tantrums by threat of punishment is not the route of choice for most parents today.

Here are some quick-fixes which I have seen parents use instead:

  • Accede to the demand.
  • Pacify the child by proving an alternative – usually candies, stickers, etc.
  • Promise something at a later date – example, trip to Disneyland, a treat at McDonald’s.

I admit that I have used these methods before and I have a nagging concern that they will actually encourage tantrums instead of reducing them since the kids will still get something with their behaviour after all. Very textbook stimulus-response reaction. And so, I have been testing new ways lately.

When my kids are upset now, I try first by getting them to verbalize their feelings and the reasons for them. Then, I ask them how the current problem can be solved and encourage them to solve it while giving suggestions and input.

Personally, I have found it very tiring to get all upset about my kids being upset. I realized that my being angry or frustrated only serves to get my kids more upset. And I certainly don’t want obedience only out of fear and not love.

So, I wanted to help myself first by being in control of my own emotional state. I try to talk calmly and even make funny faces as I spoke. As I started to see the approach working somewhat, I began to add in funny questions or saying things opposite to what they have just said as I spoke with my kids. For example, if my child is complaining that his brother is refusing to let him play with Thomas the train, I’ll say things like, “You don’t want to let your brother play with Thomas?” or “Is Thomas very busy today?

It’s quite funny to see how these questions would stop my upset child on his tracks. They would have to do a double take each time about what I just asked and that distracts them from their unhappiness and focus. And such a distraction changes their emotional state. Before long, I’ll suggest, “Hey, would you like to read the Cat-in-a-Hat book?” and they’ll be happy to come along.

Tension defused.

: )

How To Predict Success

Try this little experiment with your children:

1. Find a food that they like very much.

2. Offer them a choice: A small portion now OR a larger portion if they can sit and wait for 10 minutes.

3. Make sure both the portions are well in view.

Which did they choose? (For some kids, like mine, this seems like a no-brainer…)

Why is this significant?

Apparently, the ability to delay instant gratification is a much better predictor of future success than IQ scores.

In other words, self-discipline trumps smarts anytime.

Thinking about it, it all seems logical. Self-discipline allows planning for the future and a focus on important aims.

How do you, then, instil self-discipline?

Firstly, all parents can play a large part by not giving in to the requests and demands of our children…

… and I mean even when they are kicking and screaming in the shops with everyone watching.

When your son wants a particular toy in ToysRus, don’t just buy it.

No doubt, you can well afford the toy and yes, there are times when we’d just like to indulge our children. Yet, I am always reminded that I will not be with my kids all the time. They have to learn to provide for themselves and, to me, sooner is better than later.

You can tell him that he can have the toy but he will have to earn the amount of money needed to buy it. Then, have a discussion with him on how he can earn the money (help with simple housework, etc.) and draw up such a list.

(A by-product of this is learning about money and mathematics)

Secondly, through games.

I know three games that can be quite fun for the kids:

a. Simon Says

This is the traditional game where kids should only follow the instruction given when the phrase “Simon Says” is used.

For example, “Simon says… touch your ears!”

Given just “Touch your ears,” kids should not do anything.

b. Head and Toes

In this game, the children are supposed to do the opposite of what you ask them to do.

For example, when you say, “Touch your head,” they are supposed to touch their toes and vice versa.

c. Dance to the music

This one can get a good laugh.

Get the kids to dance quickly to fast music and dance slowly to slow music. And then, get them to do the opposite.

You can also get them to dance as long as the music is playing and then freeze their motion in place when the music stops.

Have Fun!