Early Intervention Network: Supporting Linguistic Competence for Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Massachusetts Family Sign Language Program

Factor 3 Program Highlight

Program Description

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Developed by Kathleen M. Vesey, Director, Gallaudet University Regional Center
Glenys Crane-Emerson, Coordinator, Family Sign Language Program

The Massachusetts Family Sign Language Program (FSLP) provides sign language instruction for eligible families with children who are deaf or hard of hearing from birth through 3 years of age. The goal of this program is to introduce family members to sign language, enabling them to communicate with their child at the earliest age possible. Extended family members and caregivers are encouraged to participate. Language acquisition at a very early age is critical for every child who is deaf or hard of hearing. It leads to the development of literacy skills needed throughout the child's life.

This program is coordinated by the Gallaudet University Regional Center at Northern Essex Community College through a contract with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Classes are provided at no cost to families who:

  • live in Massachusetts,
  • have a child who is deaf or hard of hearing aged birth to 3, and
  • are currently receiving services through an early intervention program.

Families receive a total of 20 weeks of instruction tailored specifically to them. The first 10 weeks are provided in the family's home; the second 10 weeks may be in the home, online, or in a group setting with other families. Classes are scheduled at a time convenient for the family. FSLP tutors follow a specially devised FSLP curriculum and are trained in the provision of sign language instruction. The curriculum addresses not only the learning of sign vocabulary but also the application of the signs to everyday family life. As part of the classes, FSLP tutors also share their knowledge about Deaf culture and teach the family ways of making their family communications more visual and accessible for their child.

Benefits of Early Visual Language  

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Meeting and interacting with deaf adults is one clear benefit for the family members participating in the program. FSLP tutors are adults who are deaf or hard of hearing from the community. They are specially trained to recognize child development and language needs. Tutors use the Gallaudet University Regional Center's FSLP curriculum and are also trained to use familiar objects in the child's natural environment as tools for teaching communication skills. FSLP tutors serve as excellent cultural and linguistic role models for families. Family members feel free to engage the tutors in conversation, ask questions, and also identify resources in the Deaf community. Another benefit families experience is seeing that the establishment of communication with their child helps with daily routines such as meal times and bed time. Caretakers are able to explain routines and give instructions to their child. The child, in turn, is able to communicate his or her wants and needs.  

See video examples:

  A sign language tutor facilitates family learning of routine signs in the home.

  A sign language tutor facilitates reading a story.


Working with Families of Children with a Cochlear Implant

Most parents are willing to try all avenues of communication with their child, knowing that communication is critical for the development of language. In the program's experience, families are participating in the program and learning sign language while their child is very young. Families who choose to have cochlear implants tend to take a brief break while their child has surgery and then continue with the sign classes. Families have acknowledged that it is helpful to be able to communicate with their child during the process of receiving a cochlear implant. Some families also report that they are able to communicate more effectively using sign language in conjunction with the cochlear implant. Using the signs has helped families assist their children with identifying sounds and being able to locate them.

See a video of a family describing the role of sign language for their child with a cochlear implant.   

A number of families referred to the program have children who are hard of hearing, including children with unilateral hearing losses or progressive hearing losses. These families are encouraged to learn sign language as an effective communication tool. Families recognize the importance of early language acquisition and of communicating with their child, avoiding the frustration that occurs when communication does not happen easily.

Challenges and Advice

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At times it can be challenging to schedule weekly classes to accommodate all of the extended family members interested in participating. The program encourages families to include all people who are interacting with their child. Some families have worked with the tutor to tailor instruction to include extended members via Skype, etc.  

In classes with multiple participants, it is always important to keep all family members engaged and feeling successful. Some individuals may struggle and others move at a faster pace. It is important to design the classes to include all types of learners.  

Resources for families for whom the language in the home is not English are often difficult to find. The program works diligently to seek appropriate resources for those families. Materials are available in written Spanish and English. Relationships have been established with language interpreter agencies to assist with communications with families who speak languages other than English.

The FSLP benefits greatly from the input of its advisory board. Members include family members who have participated in the program, a variety of professionals working with young children who are deaf or hard of hearing, early intervention professionals, and tutors. Partnerships with other agencies, such as the Massachusetts Newborn Infant Hearing Screening Program, the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, are critical to the success of the FSLP. All agencies work closely to ensure that families receive information about the program, with information provided by newborn hearing screening staff as well as by hospitals and audiological centers. Once a family has been referred for services, the FSLP works closely with early intervention service providers to assist with making arrangements for the family.