If you have a student with hearing loss in your classroom, whether deaf or hard of hearing, your first reaction may be uncertainty. How will this affect the way I teach? What changes do I need to make? It may be tempting to believe that if the student wears hearing aids, then their needs are met in terms of assistance in the classroom. After all, several of your students wear glasses and need no further assistance. But hearing loss is more complicated than that. Here are some obstacles to be aware of and steps on how to help your student succeed.
Hearing Aid Limitations
There is a common misperception that hearing aids are like glasses. That is, they restore hearing to the auditory equivalent of 20/20 vision. But this is not usually the case. Hearing Aids amplify sounds but often do not improve the clarity of sounds. A student may still struggle to understand others while wearing hearing aids. Sounds may also seem distorted or students may be more sensitive to certain sounds. Because hearing aids amplify all sounds and not just the ones you want to hear, a student may struggle to hear and understand the teacher if there is any background noise. This can lead to confusion and exhaustion for the student. Sound clarity can also be an issue for students who wear cochlear implants. Despite having hearing assistance, they can still be at a disadvantage compared to their hearing peers.
Listening is hard work. Someone who has hearing loss often cannot hear certain speech sounds. The more profound the hearing loss is, the more speech sounds are lost. When you can’t hear certain speech sounds, your brain continuously has to translate what someone is saying. Your brain has to mentally fill in the blanks, adding missing speech sounds and guessing at unheard words to translate what initially sounds like gibberish into intelligible speech. This requires intense concentration on the part of the listener. This intense concentration can quickly sap mental resources, leaving the listener feeling exhausted. When all their mental effort is focused on listening to understand what is being said, there are few resources left to actually remember what is being said. Therefore, the student may not remember the information that was being taught.
Background noise can amplify the struggle to hear. Noisy environments can quickly make a deaf or hard of hearing student feel overwhelmed. Mental exhaustion combined with overwhelm can make a student mentally check out and stop paying attention in class. Studies have shown that students with hearing loss experience greater fatigue than even children with chronic illness.
A teacher that does not understand listening fatigue may assume that a hard of hearing or deaf student is merely lazy or not capable. They may see their tendency to not pay attention as an indication of them being a daydreamer and easily distracted. They may chalk up their mental fatigue to a lack of motivation.
Lipreading also requires a great deal of mental effort and concentration. Despite what the public may believe, deaf and hard of hearing people do not automatically know how to lipread. It is a learned skill and takes many years to master. Students who lost their hearing later in life may also find it more difficult to lipread as opposed to someone who has been deaf or hard of hearing since infancy. Lipreading can also be more challenging or impossible due to the speaker. Facial hair can make it impossible to read lips. If a speaker exaggerates their lip movements or doesn’t move their mouth much when speaking, it can make reading their lips more challenging. Furthermore, many sounds are made in the back of the throat and are not seen on the lips. Only 30–45% of voice sounds can actually be lipread.
How You Can Help
Being aware of the challenges deaf and hard of hearing students face is the first step towards helping them succeed. Be aware that background noise will make it challenging for students with hearing loss to hear what you are saying. Be diligent in ensuring students are not talking amongst themselves when you are teaching. Repeat key pieces of information and place your student in an area where they can easily see you. Assess your classroom space. Are you near a noisy furnace or air conditioning unit? Do the windows let in the sound of traffic or children playing at recess? How are the acoustics in the room? If you are aware that you have a hard of hearing or deaf student coming into your class, see if you can get your classroom changed to a quieter location.
When you are teaching, make sure to face the student so they can read your lips. Repeat key pieces of information. Don’t pace while talking. It can make reading lips impossible and also distort the sound of your voice. If a student asks a question or makes a comment, repeat what the student said so everyone can hear. Students with hearing loss frequently cannot understand what is said when they cannot read someone’s lips.
Schedule times of quiet work in the classroom. Allow for rest periods. Don’t simply talk non-stop throughout the class period as that will quickly become overwhelming for the student and increase their listening fatigue. Offering other methods of learning such as visual aids and hands-on activities will give your hard of hearing or deaf students other methods of obtaining the needed information and make it easier for them to retain that information. Be aware of how you phrase information. Soft speech sounds are harder to hear. Repeat the information in a different way. Be aware of the quality of your own voice. Do you have a soft or high pitched voice? Do you tend to speak quickly or mumble? This can affect how easily your student can understand you.
Be accessible. Reach out to your student if you see they are struggling. Talk to them privately and ask if they need you to repeat information or provide it in writing. Don’t expect them to always speak up. Many deaf and hard of hearing kids have been bullied for their hearing loss. They may be embarrassed and reluctant to call attention to when they can’t hear or understand. Compassion and understanding can help a great deal. Respecting their privacy and comfort level surrounding their hearing loss can help ensure that they feel comfortable to go to you when they need help. Working together, you can ensure that they have a successful school year and are inspired with a love for learning.