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Mar 03

I Won’t Talk & You Can’t Make Me!

Posted by Pamela Jones in Fair Is Not Equal on Mar 03, 2013

How Sign Language Can Support Your Students' Behavior and Communication

The ASL sign for the letter "B"

Fists are pounding on the table. Screams and unintelligible sounds are all that you can hear. Unifix cubes are being lobbed across the room. Sound familiar, even slightly?

This scene could describe myriad situations in your classrooms but we're referring to a single student’s "meltdown." This student, let’s call him Jack, is rendered speechless when he’s tantruming. It’s actually a fairly common occurrence for students who have intense emotional and behavioral challenges to struggle expressing themselves with their words when they’re on emotional overload.

As you can imagine, not being able to say what you feel when angry or frustrated can make you even angrier and more frustrated

One approach we’ve tried is introducing a few, key American Sign Language (ASL) signs to our students. 

For this strategy to work, you have to think proactively by teaching these signs to students ahead of time—in moments when they are calm and open to learning something new.

Some examples of signs we’ve taught include “help,” “sorry,” “frustrated,” “angry,” “happy,” & “stop,” just to name a few.

So, how can this work? Let’s turn back to Jack.

Before having access to a mode of constructive communication, Jack was reduced to grunts, groans, and physically-aggressive acts. 

With these ASL signs at his disposal, Jack now has a lifeline when spoken words fail him. Perhaps (but certainly not always or definitely), he will make the “a” sign with his dominant hand, place it on his chest, and move it in a counterclockwise motion—which means “sorry.” Similarly, he may make the letter “b” sign and place it in front of his bottom lip—which means “frustrated.” 

Admittedly these are small steps; however these small steps help Jack (and others like him) establish a connection in an emotionally-charged moment. Perhaps instead of throwing unifix cubes, he first opts to sign “frustrated” or “stop.” When he sees that you’ve acknowledged his use of these signs, he’s affirmed in his choice and realizes that he made a good one.

Is this strategy a panacea? Not at all, because nothing is. Still, it’s a small step, toward helping students like Jack reach for and grab a life preserver in those tough moments when they feel at a loss.

Interested in learning some of these (and other) basic signs? Check out one of our favorite ASL sites: American Sign Language University.

Let us know what you think and whether or not you have or you plan to try this strategy with your students!

tagged asl, communication, emotional regulation, emotions, language, strategies
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