Managing deafness and hearing impairments at school
According to the National Deaf Children’s Society, there are around 50,000 deaf or hearing impaired children in the UK.
If your child is one of them, it’s natural to have concerns about how their deafness will affect them – and ensuring they get a suitable education is likely to be one of your top priorities.
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‘It can be a daunting experience when you first find out your child has a hearing loss, as most parents have no experience of deafness,’ says Colin Brook of the National Deaf Children's Society.
‘However, there are a range of services, professionals and groups that can offer you and your child support.'
What causes deafness?
There are many sorts of hearing impairment that can affect children, with a variety of causes.
Sensorineural deafness, or nerve deafness, is a hearing loss in the inner ear. This usually means that the cochlea isn’t working effectively, and is permanent.
Auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder (ANSD) occurs when sounds are received normally by the cochlea, but become disrupted as they travel to the brain.
Conductive deafness happens when sound can’t pass efficiently through the outer and middle ear into the inner ear. This is often caused by blockages such as wax in the outer ear, or fluid in the middle ear, which is known as glue ear and affects eight out of 10 children by the age of 10. Conductive deafness is usually temporary, but can be permanent.
Deafness can affect one ear only (referred to as unilateral deafness, one-sided hearing loss or single-sided deafness), or both ears (bilateral hearing loss).
How deafness is managed will depend on the type and its causes. For example, glue ear often clears up on its own, although some children have minor surgery to insert grommets, which help prevent fluid build-up.
Children with more severe or enduring deafness may need hearing aids or hearing (cochlear) implants.
How deafness affects children at school
Although many deaf children thrive at school, hearing loss can have a big impact.
Analysis by the National Deaf Children's Society shows that deaf children struggle at every stage of their education: fewer than half reach the expected standard in Key Stage 2 English and maths SATs, compared to three quarters of other children.
And under half eventually leave education with two or more A levels, compared to almost two thirds of hearing students.
Some of the problems they may encounter include:
- Difficulty hearing and understanding their teacher. For example, not all deaf children are able to lip read, and even if they can, only 30-40% of spoken English is distinguishable by lip reading.
- Problems with classroom acoustics. Background noise can affect children’s ability to hear, and certain sounds, like the buzz from fluorescent lighting, can cause interference with hearing aids and implants.
- Speech, language and literacy difficulties, including problems picking up phonics.
- Lack of resources. Because schools operate on such tight budgets, they may be unable to provide all the equipment and support deaf children need, such as one-to-one support and assistive technology.
- Tiredness and irritability caused by the extra concentration they have to put in at school.
- Needing time off for appointments, which leaves them having to catch up on missed work.
- Social and emotional difficulties, including embarrassment about drawing attention to their issues, which can affect their learning, challenges in communicating with other children and forming friendships, and even bullying.
Choosing a school for a deaf child
According to the National Deaf Children's Society, 78% of deaf children attend mainstream schools, 6% attend mainstream schools with extra resources such as a specialist unit, 3% attend deaf schools and 12% attend other special schools.
You might wonder how your child will cope in a mainstream school, but very few deaf children have no useful hearing at all. Most can hear some sounds at certain frequencies and loudness, and with the use of hearing aids or implants, they are often able to hear more sounds.
This means that the majority of deaf children can be educated in a mainstream school, with the right support. Indeed, mainstream schools can’t refuse a child a place on the grounds of their additional needs.
Alternatively, you could consider a special school that caters for children with a range of special needs, including deafness. This might be your preferred option if your child has an additional need, such as autism or a developmental delay, or if you feel their hearing loss would be better catered for.
There are also over 20 specialist schools for deaf children in the UK.
When it comes to choosing a school for your child, you’ll want to weigh up lots of factors including:
- The severity of your child’s hearing loss and how it affects them.
- How they communicate.
- What sort of resources and support a school can offer, such as providing assistive technology or having staff members who can use sign language.
- Whether the school has a specialist unit that might benefit your child, for example a speech and language unit.
- The size of the school and average class sizes.
- The classroom environment and acoustics.
- Whether there are, or have been, other deaf children at the school.
- The location of the school: special schools may not be as local, and some deaf schools are residential.
It’s vital to visit the schools you’re interested in, and speak to the person who will have responsibility for your child’s needs. In a mainstream school, this is likely to be the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO).
If your child has hearing loss, you may want to have them assessed by the local authority for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or, in Scotland, a Coordinated Support Plan (CSP).
This sets out the type of support and intervention that must be provided, by law, to meet your child’s needs.
Your child is likely to need an EHCP or CSP to gain a place at a special school or deaf school. Having an EHCP or CSP also means that they must be allocated a place at your first choice of mainstream school.
Supporting deaf children at school
Whatever school your child attends, it’s vital that they get the right support. This is especially true of mainstream schools that may have little experience of provision for deaf children.
Your child’s individual needs should be discussed with the school, and you should be involved in working out how they can be supported.
Some of the ways in which schools can support children with hearing loss include:
Providing equipment such as a radio aids (a microphone worn by the teacher that work with hearing aids or implants) or a soundfield system to help them hear their teachers.
Providing support from a dedicated member of staff, for example a Teacher of the Deaf (ToD), communication support worker (CSW) or learning support assistant (LSA).
Improving the acoustics of the school or classroom, for instance by reducing background noise, and fitting carpets and curtains to help prevent echoing.
Training staff to teach in a deaf-friendly way, for example not turning away when talking, making sure your child has understood tasks, and making sure videos used in class have subtitles.
Allocating your child a ‘hearing buddy’ who can help to make sure they’ve understood instructions and rules, for example in PE when they may not be wearing their hearing aids or implants.
Ensuring your child sits at the front of the class: hearing technologies have an optimal range of one to three metres.
Providing a quiet space in the school where your child can go to communicate with their friends, for example at lunchtime.
Helping staff and other children learn to communicate through signing, such as British sign language (BSL) or Sign Supported English (SSE).
Meeting with you regularly to discuss your child’s needs, progress and any concerns. It’s important to involve your child in conversations about how they can be supported, if possible.
You might want to put together a ‘personal passport’ that details things like how your child communicates, how to get their attention, what they can and can’t hear, and any technology they use.
This will help your child’s teacher and other staff (including those outside school, such as club leaders) to support them as best they can.
If there’s a problem
If you’re unhappy with how your child’s needs are being provided for, book a meeting with their class teacher, SENCO and any other staff who are directly involved with their learning and/or wellbeing.
It’s useful to look at the school’s SEN policy – available on their website – to inform yourself of how they meet the needs of pupils with additional needs.
If the school is failing to follow its own policy, you can raise this as an issue and, if you’re not satisfied with the response, escalate it to the school governor who has responsibility for SEN provision.
The National Deaf Children's Society also has a helpline (0808 800 8800) and live chat service that can provide free independent advice.
‘I work with the school to find solutions’
Tracy Holtom is mum to Stephen, nine, who has profound bilateral hearing loss.
Stephen was given bilateral cochlear implants at the age of four. His preferred method of communication is spoken English; his oral speech is right for his chronological age, although we do use Makaton and some basic BSL as well, especially when introducing new topics or contexts.
It was always felt that Stephen would manage in a mainstream setting with the right support, so we chose our local school and I went to see the headteacher before submitting his application to ensure that they could facilitate his needs in a sympathetic and understanding manner.
Stephen gets 20 hours of one-to-one support per week, but that leaves him with 90 minutes without support each day. He was given funding by the local authority for a radio aid that makes it clearer for him to hear what his teacher says: useful in a classroom where there’s lots of background noise.
All staff have undertaken deaf awareness training and Stephen himself did a presentation on clear communication, and produced posters and visual aids to help. I’ve also been into school to run some basic sign language and social skills sessions with his classmates.
We do have many hurdles. Stephen becomes frustrated easily, and finds it difficult to make and maintain friendships. He suffers with anxiety and gets scared when he can’t hear clearly or work out what’s going on.
Unfortunately, people see that Stephen has cochlear implants and forget that he is still deaf and has to use so many other strategies just to keep up with a simple conversation. This means I have to keep going back into school, raising issues and working with them to find solutions.
I’d advise other parents of deaf children to remember that nobody knows your child like you do. You are their advocate, so if you think something isn’t right, question it.
Don't be afraid to tell the professionals if you think something won’t work for your child, but also share your strategies and successes with them, educate them and work closely with them.
Also, make sure you take care of yourself so you can support your child, so ask for help, use support networks and don't take no for an answer.
The National Deaf Children's Society provides free, impartial, independent advice on all aspects of deafness in children, including choosing a school, making sure your child is well supported, and dealing with issues like bullying. To speak to an advisor, contact the helpline (0808 800 8800) or use the live chat service.