Toddlers’ Use of Signs in Service of Self-Regulation (T3S)

Ella signs "where" while solving a puzzle.

Vygotsky proposed that symbols are mental tools which we use to think, build our knowledge, and regulate our own behavior. Children are capable of using symbols – in the form of gestures – prior to the development of oral language. For example, when you see a child shaking her head “no” to herself, she is practicing prohibiting her own behavior. This is a skill that is a building-block of self-regulation. Recent research has shown that infants can also use pointing and showing gestures to guide their own problem solving. In addition to pointing and showing, preverbal children can also use a wide range of symbolic gestures to represent specific concepts, including emotions, feelings, and time-concepts. Thus, we wonder whether infants can use symbolic gestures as symbols to regulate their own emotions and behavior.

In the T3S study, we are documenting the ways that toddlers use symbolic gestures to participate in regulatory interactions. These interactions include responding to caregivers’ gestures by modifying their behavior, requesting comfort and help from caregivers, establishing, participating in, and modifying comfort routines, and using gestures self-reflexively as “self-talk.”

This is a qualitative and quantitative observational study of toddlers’ use of infant signs (symbolic gestures) during distressing events – including separation from parents, diaper changes, and conflict with peers – in a child care setting that uses infant signs as a part of daily routines.

We have developed a coding scheme which identifies the purpose of each gesture and word produced by the child. The twelve toddlers in this study were between 17.3 and 24.8 months when the study began and were observed an average of 15 times each over three months. We are in the process of coding over seventy episodes and we look forward to being able to analyze the results and describing how toddlers’ use signs in service of self-regulation.