Impaired hearing is this week’s topic in SENCO Week, which provides information to help education professionals consider the needs of hearing impaired (HI) learners, with pointers for dealing with parents as well as pupils

Hearing impairment is something with which those of us who are the wrong side of forty will probably be able to empathise. Attending a wedding last weekend, I struggled to hear the quietly spoken man sitting opposite me at the dinner table and was completely unable to have any sort of conversation later, while the disco was in full swing. The very effort of trying to hear what was being said was exhausting and many of my contemporaries soon opted out of any verbal communication.

This is a natural (if rather depressing!) development as we get older, but a significant number of people have to cope with poor hearing all their lives. It’s thought that one in five children have some kind of hearing impairment (HI). Whether a mild, temporary or permanent condition, poor hearing has particular implications for learning and achieving in school, where much of the instruction is verbal and often delivered against a background of ambient noise.

Support for SENCOs
It is important to identify children with hearing impairment as soon as possible, so ask for this information from parents and from previous schools and settings – even if it’s only a suspicion on behalf of the class teacher that ‘Jack doesn’t always hear’.

We’re into that time of year when chest infections, colds and enlarged adenoids are common among children, and such conditions are likely to infect or block the eustachian tube which can cause middle ear infection (otitis media) commonly known as ‘Glue Ear’. Glue Ear may cause a degree of impaired hearing that may be temporary and vary from day to day, but which may also become a permanent conductive deafness. Fluctuating periods of hearing loss caused by such infections obviously affect a child’s developing vocabulary and listening skills, so it’s important for teachers to be alert to this condition and respond sensitively. Revisiting some areas of learning will be necessary in some cases if the child is not to miss out.

If your school has a HI unit and you are lucky enough to have specialist staff available to provide CPD for colleagues on a whole-school basis, this is a real bonus; similarly, if you have a specialist teacher of the deaf supporting a child on a part-time basis. As Senco, you have a responsibility to ensure that all staff know about access arrangements and how to support any pupils with HI, including how to use radio microphone systems and loop systems.

Children with severe hearing loss (the profoundly deaf) will rely on lip reading and signing. British sign language (BSL) is the most widely used method of signed communication in the UK and uses both manual and non-manual components – hand shapes and movements, facial expression, and shoulder movement as well as finger-spelling for names and places. BSL is structured in a different way to standard English however, and pupils’ written work may reflect this (specific teaching of the use of articles for example, may be needed as they are not used in BSL). Some people use sign supported English (SSE) a kind of English with signs. (You might consider teaching one of these sign languages to interested groups of staff and pupils, providing them with valuable communication skills and making the school more inclusive.)

Information for colleagues
Children with HI often don’t realise that what they hear is different to what others are hearing and can become very confused in certain situations. They may adopt coping strategies such as following other children’s lead, laughing when others do and copying their responses to instructions – this can get them (unwittingly) into trouble at times. All pupils with HI have to concentrate very hard in the learning environment and will tire far more quickly than peers. Brief lapses in concentration can mean missing pieces of information so it’s always useful to check that they have heard the important points. It is easy to underestimate the ability of a child with HI and too many of them are found to be underachieving in school.

Look out for children who:

  • are frequently absent with ear infections
  • seem in a world of their own, ‘switched off’ to what is happening around them
  • do not respond when called or questioned
  • often say, ‘What?’ or ‘Pardon?’
  • give answers that seem unrelated to the question
  • make mistakes when carrying out instructions
  • show signs of irritability or frustration
  • are slow in acquiring phonic skills.

Teachers can help by:

  • talking to the child and asking about the best seating position (eg away from the hum of OHP and computers). Does he have a ‘good side’ for hearing and a not-so-good-side?
  • standing so that the pupil can see your face clearly (and read lips and expressions)
  • talking to the child in a normal voice at normal speed
  • introducing the topic to be talked about so that the child can anticipate the vocabulary
  • providing a list of vocabulary, context and visual clues especially for new subjects
  • supervising class discussion so that only one (identified) pupil speaks at a time while the main points are noted on the board
  • checking that any aids are working (remember that they tend to boost all frequencies including ambient noise. So scuffing feet, chairs being scraped across the floor, coughs and sneezes, lorries going by the window all can interfere with what the child really needs to listen to)
  • allowing the child to move or turn around to see other children when they are talking
  • ensuring that the child has understood instructions, remembering that high-frequency hearing loss often causes ambiguity
  • being aware that difficulty with spelling can result from hearing loss, particularly with word endings, for example: walk, –s, –ed, –ing.
  • (Wordwheels by Kathryn Clark, published by David Fulton, is a programme specifically aimed at dealing with problems experienced by deaf youngsters when constructing written language)
  • learning BSL or sign-supported English.

For additional guidance see the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf (BATOD)

Parents and pupils
As with any child with SEN, you will want to reassure parents that you are mindful of their particular difficulties and needs, and willing to make adjustments as necessary. Parents may have strong opinions about the form of communication to be encouraged and developed with their child, so check this as soon as possible. If parents themselves are deaf, employ the services of a BSL signer at meetings (arranged through your local HI support service) and bear this option in mind for any whole-school events.

For children themselves, the main issue in school is often about making friends and avoiding the isolation that can accompany a hearing impairment. If there are several children with HI in your school, consider setting up regular meeting times for them to share moral support and practical advice, and consider putting in place a buddy system.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.