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Gallaudet Univeristy
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A Good Start: Suggestions for Visual Conversations with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Babies and Toddlers

By Patricia Elizabeth Spencer, Ph.D.

Section II: Be Responsive — Follow the Baby’s Lead

Full paper in PDF format

What's in Section II:

Notice where the baby is looking or what the baby seems to be interested in
Pay attention to the baby’s arm, leg, and body movements
Respect the baby’s right to stop playing or communicating

A More In-Depth Look:

Notice where the baby is looking or what the baby seems to be interested in. Talk or sign about that object or activity.

Babies will be more interested in communicating when the baby can set the "topic" of the communication. Even as adults, we don't like to communicate with people who seem to ignore our own ideas and interests. A friend of mine, for instance, said recently about another person, "You know, she seems determined to talk about what she herself has in mind. It really doesn't matter what we say. She takes the conversation back to her original topic." Needless to say, my friend and I don't enjoy conversations with this person. Babies and young children can get the same feeling if their conversation partners keep "changing the subject" instead of following up on the child's interest. This is the case even when the child's interest is shown through actions instead of any kind of real language.

A second reason to follow a baby's interest instead of changing the topic is that language learning occurs more efficiently when parents talk or sign about an object or activity that the baby exhibits an interest in (Tomasello, 1988). And, babies and young children whose mothers often respond, or follow the children's interests, develop language more quickly than children whose mothers change the topic frequently. The benefits of responding are the same whether babies are hearing, deaf, or hard of hearing (Spencer & Lederberg, 1997; Wilson & Spencer, 1997).

Here are examples of responding and of topic changing:

  • Mother responds or follows child's topic: Child looks at toys spread around on floor, and then picks up a baby doll. Mother says, "Oh, a baby. You want to play with the baby?"
  • Mother changes topic: Child looks at toys spread around on floor, and then picks up a truck. Mother, also looking around at toys, picks up a cup and saucer. "Here, Honey," mother says, "Let's have a tea party. Do you want a drink?"

Why do children learn easier in the responsive situation? Learning a new word is a cognitive or thinking task that requires mental energy. When a child is already thinking about an object or activity, she has only to connect a new word with that object or activity. It is a one-step task.

In the second situation, when the mother redirects the child's attention, the word-learning task becomes more complex. It involves at least three steps: the baby must figure out that the adult wants her to notice something new, then figure out exactly what and where the new thing is, then finally make the connection between the new word and that object or activity.

In some of my research, I measured responsiveness in the language of hearing mothers with deaf babies, hearing mothers with hearing babies, and deaf mothers with deaf babies. (I defined "responsiveness" as the amount of time mothers talked or signed about something the baby was already looking at or playing with.) In each group, mothers followed their babies' interest about 80 percent of the time. This is a very high percentage because it is not possible — and probably not even wise — to follow the child's topic 100 percent of the time. Because the mothers were responsive so often, I think they responded to a child's topic naturally, without having to stop and think about what to do (Spencer, Lederberg, & Waxman, 1996).

Responsiveness may come naturally when mothers are encouraged simply to play and communicate with their children. Responsiveness to children's interests can be blocked and occur less often, however, if mothers believe they must perform as teachers instead of parents. "Teacher" style is often less responsive and more redirecting or topic-changing. This redirecting style may be effective in some situations with older children, but it is not a good communication style for parents and other adults communicating with babies and toddlers.

A More In-Depth Look:

Pay attention to the baby's arm, leg, and body movements. These movements can tell us when the baby is excited. They might also show us that the baby is trying to communicate.

When playing with and responding to a baby, it is important to notice the movements of their bodies, especially their arms and legs. Babies often show their feelings and their readiness for play by these movements. Researchers at Gallaudet University noticed that many deaf and hard of hearing babies moved their arms and legs more often than hearing babies (Koester, Papousek, & Smith-Gray, 2000; Koester & Meadow-Orlans, 1999). One researcher reported that a hearing mother, watching her baby's movements, said that she was afraid the baby was hyperactive. A deaf mother, whose baby moved much the same way, interpreted the activity very differently. She said to the researcher, "Look at that. My baby is trying to sign something to us." Neither mother may have been correct about the meaning of her baby's activities. However, the deaf mother assumed that the activity was meaningful so she responded as though it was. Because she responded to the baby's arm and leg movements, the baby learned that those movements got mother's attention; they were a way to communicate.

A More In-Depth Look:

Respect the baby's right to stop playing or communicating. Sometimes babies look away or even begin to fuss when they have had too much playing — too much stimulation.

It is important to keep in mind that babies, like adults, need "down time." When young babies play or communicate for a long time, they can become tired or even too excited. When this happens, babies often look away from the communication and lose their happy facial expressions (Schaffer, 1984). The best way to respond to this behavior is to wait quietly for a short time to see if the baby looks back to re-start the communication. Some babies are more sensitive than others and will need to rest more often.