Special needs student prompts kids and staff to learn sign language

Tanner Winjum is right at home, enjoying his kindergarten year. Photo by Charlie Warner

By Charlie Warner
Argus News Editor

Young children have brains like sponges. They seem to be able to soak up so much more knowledge than their adult counterparts.

And all those marvelous things they learn when they begin kindergarten usually remain with them throughout their lives.

Mrs. Judy Doty’s kindergarten students at Caledonia Area Elementary School are learning their ABC’s, their numbers, how to act in a classroom setting, just like other kindergarteners…but they are learning so much more.

Thanks to a little bundle of joy named Tanner Winjum, Mrs. Doty’s kindergarten class is mastering the art of signing and also how to interact with a special needs child.

Kindergarten teacher Judy Doty talking about the weather with her students both vocally and signing. Photo by Charlie Warner

Tanner, the son of Troy and Jennifer Winjum of Caledonia, was born six weeks premature. Like many “preemies,” Tanner had a myriad of health issues, including a heart defect, cleft pallet, hearing loss and  was also diagnosed with Down syndrome.

After spending the first four months of his life in the hospital and undergoing numerous surgeries, Tanner was able to go home and has become a healthy, happy little boy.

Down syndrome and his hearing loss have not deterred young Tanner from attending pre-school or enrolling in kindergarten this past fall. He was fortunate to have Doty as his kindergarten teacher. She had a basic working knowledge of the universal sign language for the deaf.

She honed her signing skills, introduced signing to her students and now uses it interchangeably with her voice instructions.

“I’ve been teaching my students a little bit of signing for the past seven years,” Doty explained. “My daughter Melissa, who has been very interested in signing for many years, encouraged me to learn the basics and introduce my students to it.

“When I found out that I would have Tanner in my classroom, I was so excited,” Doty continued. “I really had to work on learning so much more about signing. It was a very enjoyable challenge.

“The kids have picked it up so fast,” Doty noted. “It wasn’t long before they were going home and trying to teach signing to their parents. One of my students found a book call ‘Signing for Dummies.’ He would learn new words at night or on the weekend and teach them to his classmates and me.”

Classroom aide Tammy Reichenbacher helps Tanner with his signing. Photo by Charlie Warner

With the help of two classroom aides, Tammy Reichenbacher and Pandy King-Henke, Doty has been able to provide a very special learning experience for her entire kindergarten class, which includes Tanner and another special needs student.

“The kids are so accepting. They didn’t think anything of having two special needs students and their aides in the classroom,” Doty said.

Tanner’s mother has nothing but praise for Doty and Caledonia Area Elementary School.

“I can’t say enough about what Mrs. Doty, her staff and Tanner’s classmates have done for my son,” she said with tears welling. “With their help, Tanner has been able to progress so far. He enjoys the setting, has friends and is learning so much.

“This is a perfect example of what a school system can do for someone with special needs like Tanner,” Jennifer continued. “Mrs. Doty wouldn’t have to be doing what she has for my son. We are so lucky to have someone like Mrs. Doty.”

Spending a little time in Doty’s classroom last week, this writer saw just how extensively her students utilized signing. As they visited, they signed out what they were saying. When they asked Doty questions, they verbalized and signed at the same time. And when they were instructed to quietly take the long walk from their kindergarten room to the library, they didn’t talk…with their mouths that is. They used their hands.

“This is a win-win situation for everyone,” Doty pointed out. “I’ve learned so much. The students are not only learning a universal language, but they are also learning to interact naturally with special needs kids.

Classmates Lexi Schuldt, at left and Alicia Schroeder used signing as they sang their morning song. Photo by Charlie Warner

“And the parents are so excited,” Doty added. “That’s all they talked about during conferences last fall. Their kids were so excited to teach them how to sign. It just comes so natural for them at this age. And this is something they will be able to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

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