Emma Fraser looks at the barriers deaf children face at school, and how they can be overcome
The term “deaf” refers to all levels and all types of deafness, both temporary and permanent. Deafness may be a hidden disability, but it isn’t a learning disability. So why is it that so many deaf children fail to do as well in mainstream education as their hearing peers? After many years in education as a teacher, SENCO and qualified Teacher of the Deaf, supporting deaf children of all ages, I know there’s no magic wand. However, with some careful thought and planning, there are many things that can make an important difference to a deaf child at school.
Many children will experience either a permanent or temporary hearing loss during their time in education, and this can have a significant impact on the development of their language and communication skills. These vital skills lie at the heart of deaf children and young people’s social, emotional and intellectual development and they’re the key to future success. Children learn through language; their brains are shaped by it and it helps them form meaningful and fulfilling relationships. Developing, monitoring, assessing and adapting language and communication in order to meet a deaf child’s needs is therefore crucial.
Language, communication and noise
Around 78 per cent of deaf children are educated in mainstream schools. Schools, by their very nature, are busy, lively and noisy places. Noise affects not only our ability to listen, but our ability to process information efficiently. It can raise stress levels and leave us feeling tired and frustrated by the end of the day. For deaf children, even those with hearing aids or other hearing equipment, this can be a particular challenge. The younger they are, the greater the impact of the noise on their ability to make sense of spoken language. This noise can come from everywhere – other children talking, traffic and building works outside, or even the whirring of equipment, such as a heaters or fans. It’s worse in rooms with lots of hard surfaces or in open plan spaces.
While this is a challenge, there are some simple steps that can be taken to improve the listening environment. Where is the noise coming from? When is the child struggling to listen? Sometimes simple things can make a big difference, like changing a seating position, closing a door, putting up display boards or using a screen to create a designated quiet area. Remember, it’s not just in the classroom where learning takes place, but in the canteen, the school hall and especially in the playground. Stopping to teach the rules of a game, or allowing a deaf child access to a quiet space with a friend, can help form friendships and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The language and communication environment
We all know that children, whether using sign language or spoken language, need a language-rich environment in order to develop and learn. However, immersing a child in language isn’t enough if the language environment isn’t accessible. Deaf children often have fewer opportunities to overhear what’s being said. I remember trying to set up a picnic activity in an early years setting with a little deaf girl, not realising that she didn’t know what a picnic was. Lots of concepts we take for granted are acquired through conversation, including overhearing other people talking.
Deaf children need to use all the clues available to them to be able to understand what’s being said. They need to be able to see the speaker’s facial expressions, body language, lip patterns, gestures and signs. They also need to be close enough to the speaker so they can hear, as even hearing technology has a range. Extra visual information will help children to know what’s being talked about, such as subtitles on a film, text, pictures on the smartboard and real-life examples of new and unfamiliar things. But remember, deaf children can’t look at you and the smartboard and record information at the same time.
Thinking about how key information and lesson content is delivered can make a big difference, so keeping instructions short and to the point and giving out a lesson plan with a list of important vocabulary beforehand, helps the deaf child prepare for the lesson. Pairing up or grouping children carefully is also important. In my experience, I have never met a deaf child that finds group work easy. Teach all the children how to communicate effectively and appropriately in a group situation. Simple things such as taking turns, signalling before speaking and allowing the group to meet in a quiet place will all help.
Deaf children may spend a lot of their day pretending they have understood something, or that they know what’s expected of them. Take time to check their understanding and give them the opportunities, time and tools to ask for what they need. With a little bit of extra thought and support, they can be fully active and most importantly, independent learners.
Language and communication ability
Deaf children who use spoken language often start school with lower levels of language than their hearing peers and we can’t assume that they’ll catch-up. It’s important to fully understand their language profiles and help them acquire any of the skills they’re lacking.
Many deaf children have good functional language skills and because of improved hearing technology, they will talk and sound just like any other child. However, they may not have the sophisticated language levels they need in order to learn effectively or make and maintain friendships. It is so important that we know a child’s language ability, where the gaps are and what the impact of their language delay is. I have met many deaf children over the years who face the daily challenge of learning and socialising with language levels years below other children of their age.
Deaf children may have reduced vocabulary, challenges acquiring phonological skills, difficulties constructing grammatically correct sentences and they may struggle with more complex language. They may also find it difficult to remember large amounts of spoken information and experience challenges with working memory. Think about how to involve deaf children in whole school learning interventions, such as phonics or spelling programmes, and always seek advice and support from specialists like a Teacher of the Deaf or speech and language therapist.
Language, communication and socialising
Having friends, getting your needs met, feeling accepted for who you are and being able to talk about your feelings and understand those of others are all key to being resilient, independent and developing good emotional health and wellbeing.
Deaf children may struggle with social communication, especially pragmatic language (understanding not only what is said, but how and why it’s said) and this can lead to misunderstandings and sometimes bullying. These children will benefit from practising social skills in a safe environment, and can respond positively and successfully to social interventions. Using everyday situations, books and stories to talk about their feelings, and the feelings of others, will help them to develop positive strategies to overcome problems and give them the confidence to inform others about their needs.
Every deaf child is different, but they all have the potential to be successful in education. Have high aspirations, be deaf aware and most importantly work together with everyone to create a deaf-friendly language and communication environment.
School achievement: key facts about deaf and hearing children
Deafness isn’t a learning disability, and with the right support, deaf children can achieve anything their hearing classmates can. However, deaf children are arriving at school with all their enthusiasm and amazing potential only to fall behind at every stage of their education.
- All children are assessed after their first year of school, but just 38 per cent of deaf pupils reach “a good level of development”, compared to 77 per cent of their hearing classmates.
- At Key Stage 1, hearing children are around 1.5 times more likely to reach the expected standard in reading, writing, maths and science. The largest gap is in maths, where just 52 per cent reach the expected standard compared to 84 per cent of hearing children.
- At Key Stage 2, just 43 per cent of deaf children reach the expected standard in reading, writing and maths compared to 74 per cent of hearing children
- At GCSE, deaf children fall an entire grade behind their hearing classmates on average. The National Deaf Children’s Society calculates this gap in achievement will take 21 years to close.
- Just 44 per cent of deaf students get two A-levels or equivalent by the age of 19, compared to 63 per cent of hearing pupils.
About the author
Emma Fraser worked as a teacher, SENCO and a Teacher of the Deaf for more than 20 years. She is now Policy Advisor and a Teacher of the Deaf at the charity National Deaf Children’s Society.