Using Sign Language to Promote Communication Skills

We have all heard the phrase – children are hands on learners. This means that they tend to learn through the concrete manipulation of materials with their hands. For example, children learn how to stack blocks, not by being told how to, but by practicing using their arms, hands, and fingers.

What happens when educators incorporate a hands-on approach to language development using sign language? Research has shown that there are multiple benefits to using sign language with young children. It has been shown that sign language “adds a layer to the way their brain will process the information they are learning” according to Samantha Hakim in her paper entitled Utilizing American Sign Language in the Early Childhood Setting.

Introducing sign language to young children provides them with a visual way to take in information and a kinesthetic way to express information.  This gives children access to an alternative communication tool that they can use when they do not yet have the ability to communicate verbally.  This can reduce frustration levels for children and caregivers. Sign language can also be used in conjunction with verbal prompts, which helps children who may have receptive language delays to understand the requests being made of them.

Teachers can begin by introducing signs for common parts of the daily routine (eat, drink, potty, outside, etc.). Children can also learn signs for please, thank you, and you’re welcome. Simple vocabulary words, such as coat, shoes, door, and friend can also be introduced as children become familiar using sign language. When children learn letters and numbers, sign language can be incorporated.  Teachers can then plan to introduce vocabulary words related to books being read or curriculum themes.


If you are interested in learning more, here are a few resources to explore:

ASL Video Dictionary –

ASL Connect from Gallaudet University –

ASL Kids – Sign Language Resources and Applications –

Sign language activity ideas –

What You Can Learn from Observing Children

In this month’s newsletter, child observation takes front and center.  We discuss the importance of gathering observations to complete assessments, engage with families, and make curriculum decisions. Most states have identified a list of skills that children should be able to demonstrate as they head into public school. Assessment tools are likely to mirror these lists of skills and a teacher’s observations will help them complete these assessment tools.

However, there are other things you can learn about children that might not be listed on the state-sanctioned list of school-readiness skills. Observing children can help teachers get to know children and engage with them in meaningful ways that transcend the required assessments.

Observing children can tell you a lot about how they approach new situations, tolerate frustration, and adapt to change.  These are elements of a child’s temperament and each child is unique in how they navigate through the world.  When teachers notice that a child approaches new experiences timidly, they can decide to create space for the child to warm up to the experience at their own pace. Teachers can decide to provide advance warnings about upcoming changes or new experiences that will soon be coming to the learning environment.  They can slowly introduce new experiences for the children who prefer to approach things more slowly.

When a teacher recognizes that a child becomes easily frustrated with difficult challenges, they can make sure to adapt activities or provide scaffolding to support the child’s learning. The teacher can also teach the child self-calming strategies that they could use when they begin to feel frustrated.

Teachers who are careful observers notice changes in children from day to day.  They may note that a typically active child is uninterested in playing.  They could notice that a child who is usually able to focus their attention, is suddenly distracted for much of the day. In other words, they notice when a child is “off”, which could be a sign that the child is getting sick.

Most importantly, teachers with strong observation skills can pick up on changes in skills and behavior that may indicate that something more serious is going on with the child. These observations can become the basis of some very important conversations with the child’s family.

Take some time in the coming weeks to not only make note of the skills on your developmental checklist but also of those underlying temperament traits that define how children interact within the environment.

Compiling and Updating your Community Resource Binder

When it comes to supporting children in families in the early childhood space, national resources are good to have, but local resources are really the most important resources to have on hand.  January is a great time to go through any resource binders that you may have compiled in the past.

  • Check phone numbers and websites to be sure that the resources you have on hand are up-to-date.
  • Contact resource agencies and restock any materials that have changed over the years.
  • Make sure that you have the correct contact person and their contact information so that others do not have to wrestle with finding the correct person to speak with.
  • Remove any information that is no longer relevant.

Work with your team to identify new (or new-to-you) resources in the community.  Encourage each person on the team to identify one resource that can be added to the community resource binder. During a staff meeting, introduce these resources to the rest of the team.

Let families know that you are updating the binder and ask them to share any relevant resources with you for inclusion in the binder.

If you have not done so already, consider making your resource collection part of your website or make it available to families and staff electronically so they can access the resources at any time.

Be sure to reach out to any child care associations in your area to see if you are missing important agencies or resources in your community.

Mindfulness for Children

In the December newsletter, we explore how bringing more present-moment awareness can positively impact interactions with others. The benefits of mindfulness for adults are well documented. According to a report from Exeter University:

“Amongst adults there is reasonably strong evidence for the positive impact of mindfulness on a wide range of mental and physical health conditions, on social and emotional skills and well-being, and on learning and cognition. There is also good evidence from neuroscience and brain imaging that mindfulness meditation reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling.”

What about the impact on children?

The same study came to the following conclusions for children:

“Mindfulness for young people is easy to carry out, fits into a wide range of contexts, is enjoyed by both students and teacher, and does no harm.” 

In addition, the Exeter University study also reported improved mental, physical, social, and emotional health and well-being in the young children who participated in mindfulness practices. Benefits included:

  • Improved sleep.
  • Improved self-esteem.
  • Greater calmness, relaxation.
  • Improved ability to manage behaviors and emotions.
  • Greater self-awareness and empathy.
  • Reduced stress levels.
  • Reduced anxiety and reactivity.
  • Reduction of negative behaviors.

Cognitive functioning can also be improved by mindfulness practices. The Exeter University study found that behaviors associated with executive functions were greatly improved. Executive functions are the skills that help children organize thoughts, focus attention, filter distractions, and pause before reacting to a situation. Specific benefits cited include:

  • Longer attention span.
  • Increased innovative thinking.
  • Greater access to prior knowledge.
  • Boosted working memory.
  • Enhanced planning, problem solving and reasoning skills.

Ultimately, Exeter University’s study concluded

“The studies show that adolescents who are mindful, either through their character or through learning, tend to experience greater well-being, and that being more mindful tends to accompany more positive emotion, greater popularity and having more friends, and less negative emotion and anxiety.”

Please note: Every child is unique. Not every child will experience all of these positive results from mindfulness techniques, but children will not be harmed by the practice.

You can learn more in the CCEI course entitled SOC106: The Value of Mindfulness in Early Childhood Settings

Big Body Play

Think back to your childhood play experiences. You probably played games with siblings or children from your neighborhood. You most likely experienced some level of freedom to explore the environment and navigate social relationships through your play. Things are a bit different for some children these days. Opportunities to roam and explore have decreased while organized activities have become predominant.

One element of play that has also become increasingly rare is the opportunity to engage in big body play. Big body play includes rolling, spinning, pulling, pushing, tumbling, wrestling, tagging, climbing, and risk-taking.

Big body play activities are often discouraged in early learning environments because they sometimes appear aggressive or dangerous. Yes, children engage in fighting and aggression and these instances should be addressed. However, big body play proponents advocate for children to have the chance to use their bodies in ways that can actually decrease the amount of aggression in the learning environment.

Frances Carlson M.A.Ed., the author of the book Big Body Play, cites the following benefits of big body play:

  • Opportunity for intense physical exertion
  • Chance to release stress or “blow off steam”
  • Release of brain chemicals that benefit development
  • Increases communication with peers
  • Recognition of nonverbal cues
  • Practice turn-taking and following rules
  • Builds empathy and respect for peers

Carlson says that one way to distinguish between big body play and aggression is to look for signs from the children.  She states that, generally, children want big body play to continue for as long as possible, meaning they will negotiate and adapt activities so that everyone remains engaged.  Children engaged in big body play will maintain laughter and a willingness to engage with their play partner. With aggressive acts, one or more children will want the interaction to end and will communicate that fact.

If you are interested in learning more about big body play and how to introduce elements of this type of play into your environment, consider visiting Carlson’s website.

Playing with Math

This month’s CCEI Newsletter examines ways that early childhood professionals can enhance math-related learning opportunities for young children. The newsletter contains recommendations from NAEYC and the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, including:

  • Provide ample time, materials, and teacher support for children to engage in play, a context in which they explore and manipulate mathematical ideas with keen interest.

Most of us can recall our own early experiences with math instruction and in many cases that instruction centered on a math workbook.  We may not have memories of how we explored math concepts as a toddler or preschooler. Because our earliest memories included pencil and paper activities, it may be tempting to try to use these same tools with the young children in our care. When we review the child development research, it becomes clear that those pencil and paper activities are not the most effective way that young children learn. While workbooks and worksheets may be used in elementary schools, research tells us that the best way for young children to explore math concepts in early learning environments is through hands-on exploration and play.

Let’s take a look at a few characteristics of play that support the development of pre-math skills that children explore in early childhood.  Play should be:

  • Hands-on – Children should have the opportunity to touch, move, manipulate, stack, and arrange materials in unique and creative ways.
  • Self-directed – Children should have the autonomy to initiate their own play, choose materials, make decisions, and move on from their play at their own pace.
  • Active – Children should be able to move about the space, incorporating gross and fine motor skills into their play.
  • Social – Children should have the opportunity to engage with and learn from other children in the group.
  • Engaging – Children should be challenged to plan, investigate, create, and solve problems as part of their play.
  • Relevant – Children should be allowed to engage with materials that align with their curiosity and interests.
  • Sustained – Children should be provided long blocks of uninterrupted play in order to sink into the learning that occurs during play.
  • Revisited – Children should be allowed to engage with materials repeatedly, as they can extend their learning each time they revisit play scenarios.
  • Expressive – Children should have the chance to express their unique ideas through their play.
  • Challenging – Children should be encouraged to extend their knowledge, practice critical thinking, and take safe risks during their play.
  • Fun – Play experiences should inspire joy and bring a smile to children’s faces.

Take time over the next few weeks to observe children at play.  Identify times when you see these qualities of play and times when perhaps play periods could be enhanced – not only to enhance math learning but all areas of development.

Encouraging Play at Home

This month’s CCEI newsletter focuses on the importance of play and ways to enhance play experiences for young children. Early learning environments are designed to be places for play and exploration. Toys and materials encourage problem-solving, creativity, and cooperation. Trained teachers guide children to express themselves, take risks, and build critical thinking skills.

But what happens when children leave the learning environment and return home?  What are these play experiences like for children? What skills do children practice and how much adult guidance are they receiving as they play?

The answer is:  It varies from one family to the next.

So, what can educators do to even the playing field (pun intended)?

Share information about the value of play –

  • Use various forms of communication to share the value of play with families.
  • Describe what play looks like at various stages and what parents should expect to see as their children play.
  • Refer to different types of play (pretend, construction, creative, etc.) and share lists of materials that are included in different types of play.
  • Tell families about how play promotes specific skills, especially skills that families are eager for their children to learn, such as handwriting or reading.
  • Share the importance of repetition and brain development.
  • Talk about the importance of developing healthy physical health habits and how play can contribute to the formation of life-long habits.

Encourage families to engage with their children during play –

  • Introduce the concept of serve and return (share this video).
  • Provide a list of questions or prompts that families can use as they play with their children.
  • Model how to engage in play as you interact with children.
  • Share videos of children at play and adults playing along.

Share play ideas with families –

  • Provide ideas for toys that families can make with their children, such as sensory bottles or homemade instruments.
  • Send home books or stories with associated play ideas attached.
  • Create a game of the month, including a description of how the game is played. Encourage families to play the game with their children several times during the month and notice how their child’s skills change over time.
  • Teach families songs and fingerplays that they can sing in the car.
  • Share ideas for games to play at the grocery store or in other community spaces.

Share community resources –

  • Pass along information about community playhouses and parks.
  • Inform families about local children’s museums.
  • Let families know about events at local libraries and other community events.
  • Attempt to partner with community venues to provide discounted rates to families enrolled in your program.

Help families recognize play as a valuable teaching strategy and give them the tools they need to feel confident engaging in play and building stronger relationships with their children.

Remembering the Functions of Behavior

In the August CCEI Newsletter, the idea of behavior as a form of communication is explored. But what exactly are children attempting to communicate?  We can begin to understand children’s behavior (communication) when we become familiar with the functions of behaviors. The function of a behavior is the why behind the behavior or the need that the behavior is trying to communicate.

Depending on the resource there can be any number of functions of behavior.  Here are a few of the more common functions of behavior.

  • To gain attention – Sometimes, children engage in behaviors to gain the attention of others. The term attention-seeking is used to describe these instances. Many experts are now referring to attention-seeking behaviors as connection-seeking Sometimes, children just need to be seen, acknowledged, and reassured of their connection with adults in their lives.
  • To obtain tangible objects- Sometimes, children will engage in behaviors designed to get them what they want. They may take toys from others or have a tantrum to acquire a desired object.
  • To gain control – Sometimes, children feel completely out of control of the circumstances in their immediate surroundings. They may act defiantly in order to feel a sense of control or autonomy.
  • To avoid or escape a situation – Sometimes, children’s behaviors are a means of getting out of a particular situation, such as cleaning up or having to go to bed.
  • To gain or avoid sensory stimulation – Sometimes, children behave in a way that is a direct response to stimuli in the environment. For example, a shirt tag irritating a child’s neck could lead to an aggressive reaction. A child who is sensitive to sounds could run out of the room if it becomes too loud. Other children may play roughly with others because they are seeking strong sensory input.
  • To communicate strong emotions – Sometimes, children do not have the words to express their overwhelming emotions. They may bite a friend they are excited to see or begin to kick an adult if they are overly tired.

The good news is, that despite all of these possible triggers of challenging behaviors, we know that behavior is communication… we know that children are trying to tell us something.  It is our job to observe, reflect, and engage with children in a way that helps us get to the bottom of the matter. From there, we can help by meeting the child’s needs or guiding them to communicate their needs in safer, more effective ways.

EQ: The Secret Leadership Skill

It is likely that you are familiar with the term IQ or intelligence quotient, but are you aware that there is something called EQ, or emotional quotient?  EQ is also sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence and it turns out that it plays a significant role in the success of leaders across all fields.

IQ is a measure of the combination of knowledge, the ability to use reason, and problem-solving abilities. So, what does EQ measure? According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, there are five elements included in emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-regulation – the ability to control impulses and manage your emotional responses to situations.
  2. Motivation – the inner drive to pursue tasks and accomplishments.
  3. Self-awareness – being present with and recognizing your own emotions, including how they influence your behaviors.
  4. Social awareness – having an understanding of the emotions, behaviors, and reactions of others. This is often referred to as having empathy for others.
  5. Social skills – the ability to build relationships and work well with others.

When a person is competent in the components of EQ, they are armored with essential skills required for leadership. The good news is these skills can be strengthened. Experts recommend self-reflection as a tool that can help build EQ.

Self-reflection helps to bring awareness and focus into our lives. As we become more aware of our emotional state and our reactions to situations we can begin to better manage our emotional reactions. We can put in place tools to reduce stress and anxiety that may cause us to act in ways that are counterproductive to the goal of being a good leader.

As we gain a better understanding of ourselves, we can choose to bring that same awareness to the experiences of others. We can empathize with others and offer them our support. Prepared with a solid understanding of ourselves and the needs of others, we are in a good position to establish strong relationships with other people.

You can assess your emotional intelligence and learn more about building these important skills here.

When it’s too Hot to go Outside

Being able to get fresh air and run around the playground is vital to children’s development.  It helps them expend energy, build muscles, and improve coordination. Unfortunately, these needs do not go away during a heatwave or even a few days of rainy weather. That is why it is so important for early learning programs to create a plan for indoor gross motor play.

According to Caring for Our Children (

For days in which weather does not permit outdoor play, the facility is encouraged to provide an alternate place for gross motor activities indoors for children of all ages. This space could be a dedicated gross motor room or a gym, a large hallway, or even a classroom in which furniture has been pushed aside. The room should provide adequate space for children to do vigorous activities including running.

Once you have identified a proper space, you can determine the types of activities that children try. There should be a wide variety of activities that promote all areas of gross motor development. Some activities will require safety equipment, such as mats, so plan accordingly based on the available materials.

Skills to practice:

  • Balancing
  • Walking/running
  • Jumping
  • Lifting
  • Tossing
  • Kicking
  • Climbing

One important thing to keep in mind is the importance of activities that encourage children to cross the mid-line of their body with their arms.

To promote this movement, you can incorporate dancing activities, yoga and stretching, and games like Simon Says and Hot Potato. You could also create obstacle courses or have children draw activities out of a hat that ask children to cross the mid-line.

How do you adapt gross motor activities during inclement weather in your program?