Capital Region Language Center is teaching American Sign Language for Head Start teachers to help with speech delays caused by Covid-19. Teachers at Learning Employment Assistance Partnership (LEAP), a Head Start provider serving New York’s Washington County, have been finding it difficult to communicate with toddlers and preschoolers. They are also noticing more conflicts in the classroom because children are struggling to talk to each other.
They think they know why.
To protect them from the coronavirus, students and teachers wore masks through January of this year. As a result, kids missed a critical piece of language development: watching adult mouths make sounds and form words. The masks also made it hard for students and teachers to hear each other, leading to fewer casual conversations.
A Global Trend in Covid-19 Learning Delays
The LEAP students experiencing speech delays are part of a global trend. In one 2022 study, researchers estimated that babies born during the pandemic face up to two-times the risk of communication and behavioral challenges. Another study showed that pandemic babies took longer to reach certain milestones like pointing and saying their first word. Lack of interaction with other children is believed to be a major factor because babies and small children were kept more isolated.
With so many young children affected, speech language pathologists are struggling to keep up with the demand for services. The teachers at LEAP decided to take matters into their own hands. They asked to learn American Sign Language to help bridge the language gap. And they turned to Capital Region Language Center to provide specialized instruction.
New Ways to Use American Sign Language
“While originally developed for deaf communication, ASL is increasingly used with both infants and non-verbal individuals,” explains Kim Andersen, founder and director of CRLC. “We have taught ASL for over a decade, but this is the first time we have been asked to teach it for this specific purpose. It was exciting to customize an American Sign Language program to meet the exact needs of the teachers, focusing on key words they use most in the classroom.”
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Doing ASL Instruction Differently
Amy Smith, an ASL teacher at CRLC, taught the LEAP teachers over video call. Sessions were scheduled at the end of the school day, so teachers didn’t have to leave their classrooms to learn new skills.
“We met with LEAP leaders to determine how we could be most helpful,” Smith explains. “Teachers wanted topics like food, clothing, classroom objects. How to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Words a teacher uses throughout the day in different learning settings.”
Smith, who also teaches ASL in a public middle and high school, says she designed the sessions differently than her normal introductory classes.
“Typically, I start teaching American Sign Language by introducing greetings, how to say your name – things that can help someone interact with a deaf person,” she explains. “In this case, we dove right into vocabulary the teachers could use to encourage students to open up and also communicate more with each other. I wanted the teachers to be able to start using signs the next day — and they did.”
Smith taught four groups of teachers. Each group of eight attended two, 90-minute video sessions.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” Smith said. “These teachers are so dedicated. They were willing to try something new to help their students learn. Everyone was engaged and as I was teaching the words, we would talk about ways to incorporate the signs into their classroom routines.”
One teacher is using signing as part of her daily “circle time.” And while the most popular sign has been asking to go to the restroom, teachers are finding children moving from signing a word to actually saying it out loud.
Advantage of Customized Language Instruction
Capital Region Language Center, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2023, teaches a dozen languages to children, teens and adults. They also teach in the workplace. In addition to a schedule of regular classes, other special programs include:
- Teaching Korean and Chinese to local video game designers
- Helping technicians at a local pharmaceutical company to improve their pronunciation and use of conversational English.
- Working with union members to improve civil service exam scores
- Providing Spanish, Chinese and other language instruction at schools, colleges and libraries
- Delivering workplace communication training via video and in-person
With nearly 30 teachers on staff, Andersen says the benefit of hiring CRLC for language instruction is the ability to customize classes to specific outcomes, the way she and Smith did for the Head Start program.
“When you take a pre-packaged course online or use language software, you get a standard, static program,” she explains. “By contrast, we start by asking your goals. Is it improving pronunciation or writing? Or learning a specific set of words in American Sign Language? Our teachers can deliver a curriculum that is tailored to your needs.”
Andersen believes more Head Start, childcare and pre-school teachers will start learning American Sign Language. She says it is a tool that can help teachers and students communicate. It can also help young children catch up in speech development and language acquisition they missed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Versatility of American Sign Language
Smith has been teaching American Sign Language for more than a decade. She is eager to provide more of training for early childhood teachers. The experience with LEAP, she says, renewed her appreciation for signing.
“It made me realize the versatility of American Sign Language,” she said. “How many facets of the language can be used beyond the deaf community. This language can keep going and reaching people in so many ways. We might not even know the potential of ASL. Helping these Head Start teachers showed just how amazing it is.”
If you’re an early childhood education provider and interested in American Sign Language classes, contact us today.