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GOSHEN -- Alta Good-Elliott sits on the floor on her dad's crossed legs, comfortably surrounded by his protective arms. Her tiny toes are wiggling while he hums and gestures but she drifts away as she stares at a spot on the floor.
But as the mothers sitting in a circle around them start gesturing and singing "Hello Daddy," she turns her head and looks curiously over at the woman leading the song. Perhaps Alta's aware, because of the many eyes looking in her direction, that hers is the only dad in the room.
Her dad, Phil, gently grabs her right arm, leading it to the top of her forehead in a salute. As if she realizes her accomplishment, her eyes lit up and she blinks shyly several times as a big, open-mouthed smile spreads across her face. When the song ends, she claps unassisted, and she and her dad smile simultaneously. That's what it's all about: mutual understanding, even if just for a moment.
The room is filled with four patient mothers and their often-distracted children, who mostly have toys in their hands, busy feet and puzzled looks in their wandering eyes. The parents' goal is to have that two-way communication through sign language before their children are physically able to talk. Some are as young as 9 months.
The toddlers can't control their tongues, vocal chords and lips enough to form words. But they naturally make gestures like waving and can learn to communicate with signs before they can talk. That way, they cry less, and there's less frustration because of parents and children not understanding each other.
There are also long-term benefits from signing and singing. A study done at Pennsylvania State University indicated that signing significantly enhances a child's vocabulary development. And in a study, doctors found that children who learned sign language at an early age scored an average of 12 points higher on IQ tests.
Through weekly sign-and-sing classes at Goshen College, hearing parents and children learn American Sign Language for the words they need most, such as "drink," "eat," "up," "down," "bed" and "milk" to the sounds of nursery rhymes and action songs. Later, they'll practice them at home in a one-on-one situation like bathing or eating.
At 2 years, Alta is the oldest child in the group, but she's smaller than some of the other toddlers because of her Down syndrome. She has seen a speech therapist since she was 2 months old and hasn't learned to walk. Yet, she's the most advanced sign-language learner.
Alta has learned signs before and can already signal "up" and "down." And while she can only say "elp," she knows the sign for "help." It's a flat left hand that lifts up a right hand clenched into what looks like a "thumbs up" sign. When she forms it, it's never precise. Signs made on the face may be on the shoulders instead, but her dad can interpret and give her what she's asking for.
"She needs help to form the words," her dad said. "She doesn't have the trunk capacity to make the sounds.
"When she communicates, she gets instant rewards because people understand her. It gives her cognitive abilities, too. The more exposure she has to signing and singing as well as peer exposure, it'll increase her capacity and feeling that she can control her environment."
Children can start making signs when they're about 12 months old, but they can understand before then, instructor Jenny Campagna said.
As for parents, they learn patience along with the signs. The challenge is to teach toddlers sign language when they'd rather eat a book than look at it. But books, flash cards, puppets and stuffed animals are all part of the learning environment when you're teaching toddlers with short attention spans.
Alta frequently gets distracted by green plastic cups and stuffed dogs, or she'll crawl away to explore the room. But compared to toddlers who are new to signing, that's nothing. She's showing great progress for a child in her situation, Phil said.
As he's already discovered, the hours of teaching that parents patiently put in will pay off eventually, when something clicks and the child makes his or her first sign. Or when the child drops the sign because he learned to say the word.
To Phil, it's already worth the effort. By the time the 45-minute sign-and-sing session is coming to an end, Alta is making another sign: "Eat." She didn't eat breakfast at her usual time, Phil said, so she's hungry.
He'll take that as a sign -- that it's time to go home.