How can schools support children with a hearing impairment?
There are around 11 million people across the UK suffering from some degree of hearing loss, and 50,000 of them are children. Hearing and learning go hand-in-hand, so any hearing impairment means much more for a child than simply struggling to hear. Whether temporary, permanent or fluctuating, it impacts not only a child’s experience in the classroom but their social and emotional development, literacy skills and speech and language abilities.
The Crucial Years
The formative years are critical in the development of us all. Children with hearing loss have the potential to attain and achieve the same as any other child, but extra support can be needed to help them learn at their full capacity. Any sensory impairment which is not handled effectively has an adverse effect on a child’s development, preventing them not only from taking in new information but also learning to interact, relating to others and making friends.
Integration, Not Isolation
Historically, special schools were set up providing customised facilities with specialist teachers providing the extra help these children required. However, it’s widely accepted today that a more inclusive approach has huge social benefits so, wherever possible, children with special education needs are now placed in mainstream schools. Not only is this beneficial for those pupils with special needs, but it is also of benefit for their mainstream peers.
Depending on the degree of hearing impairment, there are a range of amenities and resources that schools can introduce that will provide targeted support for children with hearing issues.
Aids to Hearing
The initial approach is usually to fit children with ‘behind-the-ear’ hearing aids, or cochlear implants for those with very severe hearing issues. These work by amplifying sounds and making them clearer, but they don’t restore ‘normal’ hearing. Even wearing a hearing aid, a child may still struggle to hear if the speaker isn’t facing them, is too far away or if there is a lot of background noise. However, there are simple modifications that can be made in the classroom and will make a significant difference.
Improved Classroom Design
The acoustics of the school or classroom can be dramatically improved by using soft furnishings such as carpets and curtains, tablecloths and mats to reduce background noise. Additionally, fitting rubber tips on tables and chairs help prevent scraping sounds echoing around a room.
Closing doors and windows blocks external noises, while switching off IT equipment and smartboards when not needed can minimise electronic buzzing or interference. Heating or aircon systems can generate noise, so it helps to seat susceptible children well away from vents.
Proximity to the speaker is very important, so seating students with hearing loss closer to the front of the class allows them to lip read and hear more clearly. Arranging chairs in the classroom in a U-shape or circle makes it easier for these pupils to interact with classmates and help build social skills.
Hearing impaired pupils don’t just rely on listening and lipreading for information. Visual support provides a real benefit adding context to a subject or situation, particularly if it has just been introduced. Using real objects, photographs or illustrations really reinforces any communication, so using applications such as PowerPoint for presentations can be a real benefit.
Modern technology has introduced many support aides. Mobile phone apps convert speech to visual text. These can be invaluable in a teaching environment, and some are free to download. There are also FM systems available which transmit audio from a small radio microphone to a receiver which can be attached to a hearing aid. These allow the listener to hear a speaker more clearly even if they are across the room but don’t amplify the background noises.
These systems can be very effective in the classroom, but there are situations that require a broader approach.
Most schools have a public address system to broadcast information, from announcing class changes, breaks and general announcements to emergency alerts for evacuation or lockdown. While these provide much more definitive information than just a fire bell, students with hearing issues may not hear the message clearly.
Systems such as Bodet’s Harmonys can incorporate an induction loop amplifier – Harmonys Line - which allows the audio message or alert to be transmitted directly to each student’s personal hearing aid.
Rather than a traditional sounder, Harmonys also provides Trio multi-functional sounders as an option. These incorporate a flashing light which immediately draws attention whenever an announcement or alert is broadcast. To support the audio, Trio sounders incorporate a 50-character scrolling message which displays the message so even those with hearing difficulties fully comprehend the information, and know what actions are required. In addition, Bodet offer a visual communication device to flash green for a class change and red for emergencies to avoid any confusion.
Students with any degree of hearing loss want to be accepted like everyone else. They each have the potential to attain and achieve as much as any other child with the same cognitive ability. They just need the right levels of support and access to the curriculum, so it’s important for the school and the family to work together to decide what is best for the child.