Hearing and Speech- how hearing impacts learning.

Good hearing is an essential part of learning.  Adults have a background of  knowledge they can call upon to help them decipher what is going on around them.  Children are experiencing things for the first time, and it takes many exposures to new experiences to learn. School is the place where children are expected to learn, and children with any hearing loss are at a distinct disadvantage.  
Hearing loss occurs for a variety of reasons, and is is often not apparet to the casual observer.  That's why it's call the "invisible handicap".  Hearing loss may be a congenital disorder, with a child from birth, but often it is more common that parents and teachers think; ear infections (also known as "Otitis Media") can cause it, as can allergies, blockages and damage from loud sounds, medications/poisons or head injuries. Also, children's hearing can vary from day to day.   Click here to experience what a child with a hearing loss may be hearing.  Now, listen to this video again but this time add some background noise, like you would hear in the classroom; pencils dropping, papers rustling, chairs moving, kids whispering, coughing, throat clearing, the teacher talking. Imagine trying to hear over the sound of pencil sharpeners!   Adults may be able to compensate for some of these distractions with their prior knowledge, but it is much more difficult for young learners to do that.  It takes increased concentration and focused attention for anyone to attempt to compensate for a hearing loss, which is EXHAUSTING at best, and we ask kids for their attention for extended periods of time in school.  Often times kids will simply "tune out" from exhaustion, looking out he window and apparently "daydreaming" when in reality they may not be able to hear well.  

How can we tell if a child is not hearing?  We look for "clues', behaviors that suggest your child is having difficulty hearing.  A very young child may be unable to tell parents or teachers that he is experiencing difficulty in hearing. A child may not recognize his hearing loss as being anything other than normal, especially if it has been a gradual occurrence. There are signs, however, that can alert a parent or school teacher to hearing difficulty in a child.

A child with a hearing problem that gradually worsens over time may suddenly begin failing at school, or his grades may begin to drop. He may not seem attentive in class. If seated in the back of the room, he may not respond to the teacher. Children with hearing loss are often more quiet and will not typically volunteer answers in the classroom.  The child may ask "What?" or "Huh?" frequently. When listening to the TV the child may prefer the volume be louder than normal. If there is an ear infection, the child may complain of pain, may pull at his ear or run a fever, but a child may have an ear infection without any of the typical symptoms at all!

The first thing to do if you suspect any hearing loss is to be sure to have your child 's hearing evaluated.  The school nurse does hearing screenings during the year, usually at the beginning of the year.  This takes a one time "snapshot" of how your child was hearing on that day, at that time.  But we know hearing can vary from day to day.  A medical examination by your doctor is necessary to determine hearing loss and cause of it.  Be sure to let your doctor know of the concerns of your child's teacher, as well as any patterns in illnesses you may have noticed. Be sure to watch for changes in grades as well.  Your doctor may wish to refer to a specialist known as an Otolaryngologist, also know as an "ENT" doctor, who specializes in treating illnesses of the ear, nose and throat.  

Often times medication will resolve medical issues that may be causing your child's hearing loss, medication either to control allergies or to fight an infection.  Other possible solutions include hearing aids, FM system or an auditory trainer,  tools which allows the child to hear the teacher directly through headphones.  These are tools that a licensed audiologist would need to recommend.

There are a variety of things teachers can do to help a child with hearing loss in the classroom, and these can be done with any child, with or without a doctor's diagnosis.  These include: 

Seat the child close to the point of instruction so that he/she is able to see the instructors face and lips as well as hear to the best of their ability. 

Be sure to speak slowly enough, clearly enough and loudly enough to be heard.  Check in periodically to be sure the child is actually hearing you correctly.

Reduce non-essential noise in the classroom, especially when teaching.  Keep ambient noise levels down. 

 Be aware of the importance of classroom acoustics, as it has an impact on how much the deaf/hard of hearing student is able to hear.  Rugs, soft items, curtains, may all help to reduce “echos” and improve sound clarity. 

 Other helpful tips for teachers to use for students who have difficulty hearing include;        

          Repeat or rephrase questions/comments from the class before responding.

•        Face the class and speak naturally at a moderate pace.

•        Avoid the temptation to pick up the pace when time is short.

•        Do not speak while writing on the blackboard.

•        Lecture from the front of the room/group—not pacing around.

•        Point out who is speaking in group discussions.

•        Do not drink or chew gum while lecturing.

•         Do not stand or sit in front of a window where shadows will impede speech reading.

As teachers, we are striving to help your child learn and grow in every way to his or her potential.  If you as a parent have difficulty  knowing where to go or knowing how to get the help your child needs please contact your child's teacher,  or a school administrator, such as the principal or special education director, for help.