If you have just discovered that your child is deaf or hard of hearing, you can easily feel at a loss as to what steps to take to ensure they have an optimal learning experience. Some 90% of all parents of deaf children are not deaf themselves, so it may be surprising to find that many things we often take for granted about learning and communication, require specific efforts when it comes to children who are deaf or hard of hearing.
The importance of communication to a child’s social adaptation, cannot be stressed enough. If a child is to make friends, find things in common with others and grow and mature well, they need to be competent communicators. Children don’t need language just to do well at school; they need it to feel socially integrated, which is why offering them the best education possible, is key on a multitude of levels. In addition to learning core subjects, deaf kids also need to be able to chat about culturally relevant matters, use appropriate slang words and learn to empathise with others; all this can be difficult when they lack the incidental information which is available to those without hearing impairments.
You may wish to keep the following tips in mind when it comes to educating a deaf child:
- Be as well informed as you can on the specific learning needs of the deaf or hard of hearing. Read books, attend talks and avail of free resources such as those offered by The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS). The latter offers advice from the time your child is born, helping you understand the nature and types of hearing loss, teaching you how to interpret your child’s hearing tests and providing a host of age-appropriate activities that encourage communication.
- Don’t rush: Nowadays, deafness is identified as early as the newborn stage, which is useful in giving parents time to think about what kind of communication they wish to adopt. If your child has been tested a bit later, though, don’t feel pressured to pick one approach quickly; take the time to choose what works best for your child and don’t be afraid to try different approaches at different times or stages. Common approaches include the Auditory-Oral approach, Sign Bilingualism and Total Communication. Additional techniques include Cued Speech, Fingerspelling and Lipreading.
- Develop both language and communication skills: Your deaf child may have excellent language skills yet not be able to communicate, or be a great communicator but not necessarily have the best expressive language skills. Communication is the means through which we use language to express our thoughts, feelings and desires. It is vital to work on both areas to make the most of the world we live in.
- Create a good learning environment at home: Clear up the clutter, and improve the acoustics at home by using soft furnishings and carpets, to reduce echoes and reverberation.
- Start to Communicate with Your Child as Early as Possible: Ensure your baby can see you well, so she can observe your body language and visual clues as well as hear you (perhaps through a hearing aid). Use lots of facial expressions and gestures and encourage physical contact. Ask people to face your child upfront when speaking to her and to repeat words or rephrase sentences if necessary.
- Use everyday situations as an opportunity to learn: Whether you are at the supermarket or visiting the zoo, use your surroundings to introduce new vocabulary; do the same with normal routinary activities such as bathing, having a meal together, etc.
- Use visual support, especially to introduce new vocabulary: Plan your lessons with your child ahead of time, and present him with as many visual representations of new words as you can. Depending on the communication approach you chose, professionals may discourage the use of visual cues in order to focus on auditory cues; otherwise, they may emphasise visual learning over listening. This is laudable during specific times when your child is developing particular skills, but at home, you should aim to give your child as many opportunities to increase their vocabulary as possible.
- Use books and music (songs, dance and action rhymes) to get your child excited about learning and communication with you.
- If you are using sign language, try to encourage the family to use sign even when they are not communicating with the deaf member of the family; this way, a child will not miss out on vital ‘incidental’ information.
- Be patient: Don’t rush to finish your child’s sentences or make them feel you are losing patience. It is vital to foster confidence and enthusiasm for learning.
- Don’t focus exclusively on language and communication: Deafness can cause delays in other areas, including cognitive development, social and emotional development, and skills of independence. In England and Wales, the Early Support Programme provides a Monitoring Protocol for deaf babies and children. The protocol is used to track your child’s progress.
- Talk about feelings: From the time your child is a baby, help them identify feelings, with comments like “You seem upset!”, “You’re really happy that mum has arrived, aren’t you?” or “I know you’re angry because you can’t keep playing and it’s time to have a nap”. Encouraging a child to talk about feelings increases their ability to empathise with others.
- Ask your child questions: “What do you think this is for?” “Where should this go?” “What do you think is happening here?” Use “What?” “When?” “Why?” and “How?” as much as you can.
- Let Your Child Take the Lead: Don’t force them into activities they find boring.
- Use more than one word to describe the same thing: Teach them a few idioms as well, such as “Money doesn’t grow on trees” etc. Role-playing is another way to significantly increase your child’s vocabulary, focussing on specific situations (e.g. at the doctor’s office, at the supermarket, at the airport…).
- Prepare your child for school: Pre-teach them vocabulary they are likely to encounter at school; teach them a few group games kids are likely to invite them to play. Build a good bond with your child’s teacher and support staff, so you know what they will be learning at school.
- No choice is fixed: When it comes to choice of school, approach to learning and learning techniques, remember that flexibility is key; you need to find what works best for your child and if that means starting all over again, welcome new beginnings with an open mind.
We hope that you have found this guidance useful. Please feel free to share your tips and experiences in the comments below.