Cambridge preschoolers learning ASL because of speech delays | Times Union

Last fall, the preschoolers’ Head Start classroom in this village featured a lot of screaming arguments.

While each fight was rooted in typical preschooler problems – sharing, taking turns – the staff said it was much harder to resolve than in pre-COVID-19 times. The issue: The children could not understand each other. Head Start officials blamed masks, which reduced the children’s chance of getting COVID but hurt their language development, they said.

“Articulation is the biggest thing. They can’t form the word exactly right, because they haven’t seen it,” said L.E.A.P. Head Start Cambridge Valley Center lead teacher Aleisha LeClair.

The children spent their toddlerhood at Head Start with masks on, and they are now noticeably behind their pre-COVID peers in language development. At first, even LeClair struggled to understand the children.

“Think about ‘th,’” she said. “If you don’t show them how to make that, they can’t make that sound. You can’t just tell them. It’s not something they’re able to visualize.”

The children also couldn’t easily hear each other through their masks. That discouraged casual conversation.

And the children were often not taken to the many places that families went pre-COVID, losing out on the vocabulary they would have picked up on those trips.

“A lot of these children were very isolated – they didn’t go to stores, they didn’t go to (indoor) playgrounds, so they didn’t pick up on a lot of that incidental language development,” said American Sign Language teacher Amy Smith.

Now, at ages 3 to 5, LeClair’s students aren’t using full sentences. They’ll say one word instead.

Many Head Start schools (early childhood education for economically disadvantaged families) and other preschools have called in speech therapists, including for LeClair’s class. But in the meantime, LeClair had frustrated children who could not communicate with each other.

So she turned to sign language.

Read more: