School for the Deaf Teacher Spreads Sign Language at Breckenridge Highlands

By Sara-Summer Oliphant (Published on ForestHills-RegentSquarePatch

Master Signing Time Academy Instructor Erin McNeil-Mascaro is a teacher at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

Mascaro Family - Erin with daughter Raegan and husband Steve. October 2010.

Erin McNeil-Mascaro has known the importance of sign language as a teacher at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. But when she became a mother nearly three years ago, she learned firsthand what a useful tool sign language could be in communicating with her daughter and working to develop her daughter’s speech.

“I started signing with her almost as soon as she was born,” said McNeil-Mascaro, a Baldwin Borough resident. “She started communicating with us through sign when she was around 11 months old.”

Now, McNeil-Mascaro is reaching out to other area parents and children to teach them how fun and useful sign language can be for young children as part of the Signing Time Academy.

Beginning July 16, McNeil-Mascaro will hold classes in the community room of her Breckenridge Highlands housing complex in North Baldwin. “My Time to Sign” is a four-week course that costs $35.

Classes for children aged 3 and younger will be held on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. for 45 minutes, and a second session is being offered on Tuesday afternoons at 5:15.

Older children, aged 4 to 5, will have an opportunity to learn signing on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m., and classes for children aged 6 to 7 will be held on Tuesday nights from 6:30 to 7:30.

“My Time to Sign” will teach basic signing and will include take-home projects for the student and his or her parent(s) to work on. In addition, “Baby Signing Time” materials will be available for purchase, but they are not required.

The Signing Time Academy was founded by Rachel Coleman and her sister. Coleman’s first daughter, Leah, was born deaf, and Coleman and Leah’s aunt teamed up to create a fun DVD to teach their family and friends how to communicate with Leah. The video was a hit, and more parents requested it to teach their own children how to sign.

Signing Time is now made up of 26 volumes as well as Baby Signing Time, which targets young babies all the way through 3 year olds. The academy also boasts instructional CDs, books and flashcards. Most parents would recognize Coleman as the woman signing on Nick Jr. with the colorful bandages on her fingers.

According to the Signing Time website, studies have shown that typical children who learn signing read earlier and have a higher IQ than those who do not. Learning to sign can also ease some of the tantrums of the “terrible 2s.”

McNeil-Mascaro agreed that her daughter’s ability to communicate her needs definitely reduced the number of tantrums that McNeil-Mascaro dealt with as her daughter aged. Despite the assumption by some people that teaching sign language will interfere with teaching a child to speak, McNeil-Mascaro said that she thinks that it has had the opposite effect on her daughter.

“Raegan (McNeil-Mascaro’s daughter) started talking early, at around 11 or 12 months, and hasn’t stopped,” her mother said. “With Baby Signing Time, we use the sign with the word. We don’t turn our voice off.”

As a teacher at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, McNeil-Mascaro instructs her students and follows curriculum just as a teacher would in any other classroom; she just does it in sign language. Now, she is looking forward to the opportunity to share this language with those around her.

“Rachel Coleman just wanted her daughter to be able to communicate with other kids at school and at the playground,” McNeil-Mascaro said. “That is what I want for my students.

“Hopefully, these classes will help other people learn sign and allow for that.”

The benefit isn’t just for typically developing children. Studies have shown that children with autism, as well as kids with other non-verbal learning disabilities, have had a lot of success communicating through signing.

While no specific Signing Time classes have been scheduled to target those kind of children, McNeil-Mascaro is considering one. She said that she is also available for one-on-one time with any child who needs it.

McNeil-Mascaro hopes that these classes at Breckenridge Highlands are just the start. She is considering also offering classes at the Pittsburgh Zoo and a local park. She would like to expand into local libraries and possibly preschools.

Fore more information, email McNeil-Mascaro at erinpgh@signingtimeacademy.com.