Tips for Starting Sign Language in your Special Needs Ministry

Sign language is often used with children with special needs for a variety of reasons. Sign language can provide a way to communicate when verbal speech is limited. It can also be a way to support an adult’s words because the sign becomes a visual representation, adding another layer of understanding for the child. If sign language is something your church’s special needs ministry is thinking about incorporating, here are some things to consider.

What signs do I start teaching?

This is going to depend on many factors and the needs of your ministry. The age, diagnosis, and more importantly, the previous experience of the child with sign language all may impact what signs you choose. You may want to consider adding some signs that you can embed into your routine or lesson naturally. The sign angel may be appropriate to teach, but it may not be a word you say often. Jesus, on the other hand, may be more frequently used giving you multiple times to teach and show the sign.

Before you start selecting signs at random, think about what you hope to accomplish with the signs. Non-religious signs may help the children better understand what you want them to do (i.e. sit, sing, potty, stop) and could possibly be more helpful for classroom management. If you hope to encourage more participation in worship for those with limited speech, adding signs to songs may be a good starting place. Still another area of focus may be teaching signs based off of the main vocabulary of your lesson. Think about what your ministry needs and start there.

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How do I teach the signs?

This is simple. Sign the word as you say it. The first time you introduce the sign, you may want to describe how to make it or slowly show the sign a few times. Better than showing and talking about the sign, help the children “feel” how to make it by moving their hands in the right position if they are unable to do it on their own. The more times you can naturally use the sign, the more chances they will have to remember it.

Rather than introducing multiple signs at once, pick a few signs to start teaching. It’s better for the children to recognize a few signs well than have dozens rapidly introduced but not retained. Time will tell you what is too much or too little. Be sure to let the parents know what signs are being taught, so they can reinforce them at home.

What if a child isn’t signing with you?

Children who are not yet using early-developing gestures such as pointing or waving may not pick up on sign language. Similarly, children who have difficulty watching and imitating others may struggle to repeat the signs. Even if a child isn’t signing along with you, it does not mean they are not comprehending your signs. Be patient. Try not to force signing if it’s not a good fit.

Keep in mind that sign language involves specific finger and hand movements, which may be difficult for children with fine motor delays or motor impairments. Children with these needs may approximate the sign shape.

Sign language can be a great tool for children with special needs. By adding in sign language, you can build a child’s understanding of a word or give the ability to express a new word. It could be a benefit not only to your church’s ministry but to the student’s individual spiritual growth.

Evana is a wife and mother of two children. Since becoming a parent, Evana has spent many hours driving to specialty appointments, praying beside a hospital bed, and learning about her children’s diagnoses. Evana is also a pediatric speech-language pathologist and serves children with autism, feeding disorders, and other developmental delays. You can connect with Evana on Twitter, Facebook, and her blog, A Special Purposed Life. You can also read more about her family’s story in her book, Badges of Motherhood: One Mother’s Story about Family, Down syndrome, Hospitals, and Faith.