By Heather Stinson, Itinerant Teacher of the Deaf/ Hard of Hearing, Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech
Itinerant teachers of the deaf (TOD) provide direct services to children with hearing loss in mainstream schools, consultation to their teachers and professional development to school staff. Itinerant TODs travel to a child’s neighborhood school to provide one-on-one educational support, foster listening and spoken language development, and help children build social and self-advocacy skills. They also act as a liaison between the family and their mainstream school.
Heather is the author of Hear Me Out, a blog produced by Mainstream Services at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech as part of the organization’s mission to support children with hearing loss and the professionals who serve them. Hear Me Out provides a unique forum for itinerant teachers of the deaf to share their experiences as they grow as professionals.
Although hearing loss is considered a low incidence disability, occurring in only 1.7% of newborns according to 2016 CDC data, with Universal Newborn Hearing Screenings, early identification, early amplification and early intervention, more and more students with hearing loss who are deaf or hard of hearing are receiving education alongside their typically hearing peers in mainstream classrooms. For many of these students, their assistive hearing technology is barely noticeable and their speech and articulation are on par with their peers. Especially for young early elementary students, any delays or differences in educational performance could be deemed developmental and brushed aside by professionals thinking these students will eventually catch up. However, students with hearing loss have unique learning needs and with some thoughtful planning, these students can be successful both academically and socially in mainstream classrooms.
Understanding hearing technology is the first step in meeting the needs of students with hearing loss. Unlike the way that eyeglasses repair vision, assistive listening technology does not “fix” hearing loss. Cochlear implants, hearing aids, and BAHA (Bone Anchored Hearing Aids) provide access to speech sounds but do not ensure comprehension or repair the damaged hearing organs. Additionally, background noise is also amplified meaning that students with hearing loss need to work harder in a mainstream classroom to tune out unwanted noise and focus on the desired signal (e.g. the teacher or a peer’s voice). Students with unilateral (one sided) hearing loss or an asymmetrical loss may have difficulty localizing sound in a classroom setting, even with assistive technology, preventing them from participating fully in class discussions and putting them at risk of missing information and developing gaps in understanding.. Many students use Hearing Assistive Technology (HAT systems, formerly referred to as FM) to combat the effects of distance and background noise. A HAT system brings the teachers voice directly to the student’s ear, reducing the signal-to-noise ratio and perceptually making the teacher’s voice louder than the noise. All amplification must be checked daily to ensure it’s working properly which requires some training by a professional familiar with the assistive devices. Teachers should seek support from an educational audiologist or teacher of the deaf to ensure that the equipment is being used correctly throughout the school day in order to maximize access for the student with hearing loss as each system is different.
Listening fatigue is a common concern for students with hearing loss due to the extra effort required throughout the school day to auditorily attend to periods of instruction. Times that are generally considered breaks for students such as recess, PE, and lunch are actually the hardest for students with hearing loss. The fast pace of conversations, quick changes in topics, multiple speakers, and lack of clear instruction, as well as the addition of background noise, make these “down” times that much more challenging. Many students may not know that they are experiencing listening fatigue. Behaviorally, listening fatigue can look different in each student. Sometimes students visibly “space out” or seem to be distracted or not paying attention. For other students this may look like silly, “class clown” type behavior or even aggressive or argumentative. For other students, dominating the conversation or class discussion is a sign of listening fatigue as it is easier for students to participate when they are controlling the conversation and are therefore familiar with the topic. Thoughtfully planning listening breaks during the course of the day, quiet times when students are not required to attend to and process spoken language can aid with the effects of listening fatigue.
Social and self-advocacy considerations are important educational components for students who have hearing loss. Students must be able to understand and explain their hearing loss and assistive technology in order to confidently advocate for themselves in the classroom. Peers often ask about hearing aids, cochlear implants and HAT systems out of curiosity. To develop a strong sense of self, students with hearing loss should be able to respond to these questions with age appropriate explanations such as, “My cochlear implants help me hear” or, “That’s my HAT system. It helps me hear the teacher’s voice.” When students feel confident and supported at school, they are able to form and maintain real friendships, are more motivated to come to school and are more ready to learn.
Specific language instruction is critical for all students with hearing loss, and especially for elementary students. Many students appear to be on par with their typically hearing peers in the early grades because everyone is learning to read and write. As the expectations for written work increase, the student with hearing loss can start to fall behind. As written work becomes core to classroom work and students are expected to express their ideas in writing, the written language of students with hearing loss is often less complex than that of their peers. For example, they may need direct instruction in specific written language structures Responses to complex or inferential questions may not be accurate or in some cases, may even be the exact opposite of the correct response. Students may continue to write in simple sentences, omitting temporal language or complex clauses even though they are writing longer paragraphs. Modeling the type of written and spoken language required for comparison, cause and effect, persuasive, and other complex writing is necessary as students with hearing loss often do not pick this up incidentally.
A teacher of the deaf / hard of hearing is a critical service provider for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Teachers of the deaf are educators who have received specific training to understand the unique access, social / emotional, and educational needs of students with hearing loss. A teacher of the deaf also has experience in the related areas of speech, language, and audiology but is different from a speech pathologist or audiologist. Teachers of the deaf are focused on assessing and supporting the impact of hearing loss on learning. Teachers of the deaf can offer direct support to students with hearing loss in the areas of language, reading and writing, and self-advocacy as well as consultation to the entire educational team to ensure optimal access throughout a student’s school day. Teachers of the deaf are experts in how a student is accessing information in a classroom. Through classroom observations, they can identify potential challenges and offer strategies to classroom teachers. If your student does not currently have a teacher of the deaf, consider including this professional on the team.
Classrooms are increasingly diverse and students with hearing loss are part of that diversity. With thoughtful planning and preparation, these students can be as successful in the mainstream classroom as their typically hearing peers!
Heather Stinson (CAGS, MED, S/LP-A) received her master’s degree in Education of the Deaf from Smith College in 2006 and a graduate certificate in Children, Families, and Schools (with a concentration in research methodology) from the University of Massachusetts in 2012. In addition to her many years of experience working with children with hearing loss who communicate using listening and spoken language, Heather has also worked as a preschool classroom teacher. Heather has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to mainstreaming students with hearing loss and is a contributing author to Odyssey magazine. Heather currently works as an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.