How to Teach Your Toddler to Use Sign Language

I consistently see a direct correlation in toddlers between frustration and lack of language. Imagine living in a world where you didn’t have a way to request/protest/ask for help/ ask for more. When the child’s language increases, frustration and averse behaviors significantly decrease.

Below is a quick post on how to teach your toddler to sign, “give me” in order to request. The “Give Me” sign is one of the most practical signs you can teach young children who are not yet speaking, or who are a beginning to use words.  Children spend the vast majority of their day requesting from an adult or caregiver. Most items are out of reach, or in containers that need need help opening. Many times the requesting can look a lot more like; pointing, reaching, pulling, grunting, or yelling.

The goal of this post is to teach you how to teach your child to use the very functional sign, “give me”.

First let’s talk about a couple key elements of starting to teach.

1. First make sure you have an item the child wants.

2.  Have control of the desired object

3. Hold the item out and wait for the child to reach (this confirms they actually want the item)

4. Take the reach, and with hand-over-hand support help them sign “give me”

5. As soon as they finished signing (with your help) immediately give them the item they are requesting. This is the most important step to pay attention to as the teacher. Hand the item as fast as you can once the sign is produced to ensure the connection between the behavior (signing “give me”) and consequence (getting the toy they wanted).

[To simplify it: Identify the Desired Object > Adult Holds Out Object > Child Reach’s > You Help Them Sign > Immediately Hand the Item to the Child]

The main goal: Teach the child, don’t test them: Show the child exactly how you want them to communicate with you. Reinforce the action/request by giving them what they are asking for. The reinforcement of the sign language will come from immediately giving the item they want, and hearing your verbal praise.

When to practice: All day everyday…..just kidding. Train yourself to think, whenever my child reaches up, grunts, pulls…that’s an opportunity to practice “give me”.

Find toys/food that give the opportunity for multiple requests.

Ideas for working on “Give Me”

1. Instead of handing the child an entire bowl of goldfish crackers…you hold the bowl and hand them one. After they’ve eaten it, hold out another, wait for the reach, help them sign, immediately hand them the goldfish. Repeat these steps as many times as the child can tolerate. If the child becomes frustrated after two attempts, give them the rest of the snack, and tell yourself you’re going to aim for three attempts the next snack.

2. Instead of handing the child the entire Potato Head, hand them the body, and help them request each piece.

3. If the child is interested in plates and cup while you’re setting the table, hold each one up and help them say/sign “give me” before handing it to them.

Anytime that little arm reaches up, think of it as an opportunity to shape that reach into more specific language.

Common Mistakes By Parents

Here are a couple of common mistakes I often see parents make….

1. Don’t let the child grab onto the toy before you are willing to let it go. If this happens, a tug of war usually ensues. The child gets upset, and the entire activity is over before it even started. If you are not quick enough to dodge their grab, let them have the piece and start over with another piece.

2. Quizzing the child from the start. This is not a test; it’s a teaching experience. Ask the questions then immediately give the answer. Give as MUCH support as you can and fade accordingly.

3. Asking the child to request 10 times before you hand them the object. If the child is successful once, don’t ask them to do it another before you hand them the item. The point is to have the sign “give me” and then immediately reinforce the child after they requested (or you helped them request).

A systematic approach to teaching

Again, we are teaching not quizzing the child. The ultimate goal is to have the child independently learn how to use more specific in order to make your both of you lives easier. It is important that you have a clear idea of what level of support the child needs and help them succeed at that level.

If the child is getting frustrated, revert back to the previous level of support. After every couple of attempts try the next level and see how they respond. 

1. Start with hand-over-hand support (grabbing the child’s hand and signing for them). You are hold their hand and doing the entire action for them.

2. Then move to the forearm

3. Then elbow

4. Back of arm

5. Reach as if you are going to give a physical prompt and see if they respond independently. (No physical contact in this step)

6. Show them by signing yourself (The watches and imitates without you reaching towards them)

7. Tell them “say give me” (the child is listening and imitating)

8. Hold the item up and shrug your shoulders as if you’re waiting for them to request (the child is remembering and imitating by responding to a visual prompt)

9. Look at them and say, “how do you ask?” (the child is listening to a verbal, remembering, and independently carrying out the sign)

You are the expert on your child. Take that confidence, make it playful and enjoyable, and use each reach or grab as an opportunity to teach.

Most importantly have fun!

For more speech and language tips, follow Speech and Feeding Kids on YouTube.

About the Author


Drake Hastings is a speech-language pathologist who specializes in speech, oral motor, and feeding therapy for kids. Drake has a passion for working with children and families while helping children achieve goals using a fun and motivating approach to learning.

Drake’s main areas of focus within the practice are feeding therapy, and speech (sound production) therapy. Drake has experience working with children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Apraxia of Speech, Dysarthria, Down Syndrome, and rare genetic disorders. Drake has experience working and collaborating with a wide variety of families and therapeutic team members while treating children of all ages.