When a child is first diagnosed with a hearing loss, immediately parents are asked to make decisions that will impact how their child will learn language. These decisions come with a wide range of emotion and concern about what communication method(s) to choose. Many parents may feel pressure to decide and for good reason: time is of the utmost importance when it comes to language and communication development. When a child can’t communicate, the brain is not growing the connections it needs to understand language. Without those connections, the child will struggle to communicate with the world around them.
For parents who choose for their child to use a hearing aid or cochlear implant, the child generally begins using the hearing technology right away. But what happens after their ears are “turned on”? How do they “catch up” to other children who have typical hearing?
Whether your child has a hearing loss or needs other supports to communicate, creating a language-rich environment in the home is key to building language and communication skills your child can use to thrive outside the home. The tips on the following page are some ways to help your child interact and engage with you every day to meaningfully grow language and vocabulary.
Four E’s of Hearing Loss in Early Childhood
When a child can’t hear well, their brain is not growing the connections it needs to understand language. Without those connections, they’ll struggle to understand speech and to speak themselves. Remember the 4 Es:
1. Early Identification – have your child's hearing tested by a pediatric audiologist
2. Early Amplification – if your child is found to be deaf or hard of hearing, they may need hearing aids or cochlear implants
3. Early Intervention – with qualified therapists who will partner with you and your family to help your child develop listening and spoken language
4. Early Bonding – which means a lot of listening and talking with your child and between your loved ones
Talk About It : Growing Language and Vocabulary Through Interaction and Engagement
The following tips are some ways to help your child interact and engage with you every day to meaningfully grow language and vocabulary.
1. Create Ways to Talk with Your Child
Conversation happens around us all of the time. Create ways to include your child in the conversation! This is especially important for children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
First, watch to see if your child is joining in the conversation or appears to be left out. Then, create ways to encourage talking. There are lots of different ways that we can help children participate in conversation:
- Think of topics you might explore. What people, places, toys, and activities are special to your child?
- Keep the conversation going by using lead-in or starter statements like, “I wonder…” “What do you notice?” “Tell me more about that” “What else do you want me to know about this?”
- Encourage conversation during good times and in good places where you know your child will enjoy talking with you.
- Above all, be a good listener. If you’re going to talk to your child, give your child time to talk and respond to you.
Children learn language by listening to conversation in their family’s language or languages and by interacting with the important adults and children in their lives. Make sure to include your child in the conversation!
2. Actively Listen to Your Child
Remember to listen to your child. It is equally important to listen to what your child is saying, as it is to talk to your child. When you listen to what he or she says, you can pick up on things they like, activities that interest them, and learn more about what areas of language they may be struggling with. Do your best to avoid distractions and limit background noises, so your child can have your undivided attention while you play and talk.
For children who are deaf and hard of hearing, active listening is especially helpful in the early days of listening and spoken language development. Listening helps identify sounds your child is struggling to hear, which could be a technology issue. A combination of active listening and working with your intervention team can help improve the child’s access to sound, and lead to faster language development.
3. Help Them Understand the Conversation
Children first learn about who they are by interacting with the important people in their life. When you talk directly to your child, help them understand the conversation. When children who are deaf and hard of hearing first develop language, it’s hard to follow more than two people who are talking. Take care to watch your child, and repeat all or part of what was just said in words that your child already knows. Help others understand how they can adjust their communication to make sure everyone is able to fully participate.
4. Plan Fun Family Activities
Your child should participate in all the fun activities other children in your family participate in. Here are some examples of things you can do:
- Have a family dance party and encourage everyone to get up and move! Feel the beat of the music and get your rhythm going. Laugh, enjoy, dance, clap, stomp, have fun!
- Create a movie night at home and make sure your child can hear the sounds of the movie. Ask questions about what’s going on to see if your child is understanding: “What just happened?” “What do you think will happen next?” “Was that funny/silly/scary/sad?”
- Plan a family game night and break out a fun board game. Talk out every move, and leave time for everyone to take turns picking a game.
For children who are deaf and hard of hearing, asking questions to see if they understand what they hear is crucial for them to understand the language around them.
5. Prepare Your Child for Big Events
Prepare your child for big events such as birthday parties, family gatherings, or weddings by talking together ahead of time about what will be happening. Develop a script to answer questions from others about the child’s hearing loss, and practice what will happen during the event. Then talk through your experiences after the event, as well. One idea is to create an Experience Book and use it to talk together about the exciting time your child had.
6. Narrate Everything You’re Doing
Even as babies, we communicate about our basic needs: “I’m hungry, I have a dirty diaper, I want to be held.” As children grow, they also learn to do things on their own. How can parents help? Narrate. Tell your baby what you are going to do, what you are doing, and what you just did. Even if your baby can’t respond yet, your baby will learn that there are words for everything you do. Especially for babies who have just received hearing aids or cochlear implants, constant talking will quickly connect the pathways between sound coming in and the brain understanding it. Keep narrating and – sooner than you expect – your child will be chatting back and forth with you!
7. Talk About Feelings
Talk with your child about what they think and how they feel. Humans need to connect with other humans to thrive in relationships. Learning the vocabulary of “feelings” helps your child have the language they need to sort through and deal with the many feelings most of us experience. Rather than thinking that you need to protect your child from tough feelings, instead adjust to “I want to prepare my child for tough feelings.” As children grow older, they will increasingly need to be prepared to deal with things, and even take the lead in some situations. Life is not easy for anyone, and helping your child navigate life and gain their independence is a large part of what parents do.
Learning to handle life happens best with the love and support of family. For a child with hearing loss, feelings and emotions can be hard to put into words. As a family, encourage your child to talk through, and not avoid, hard conversations. Practice by imagining and talking through scenarios. What you spend your time and attention on, is what your child sees as important to you. Practicing hard conversations will help your child learn to deal with important situations in the future, and help them understand how important they are to you and to others.
8. Let Your Child Lead
By swooping in to protect our children when they are capable of using their own voices, we send the message that they need to be protected and are not capable. Give your child the chance to try new things and to ask for help when they need it. You can start small with letting your child get a glass of water or practice putting away clean clothes. With language, you can practice letting your child answer questions from others first, instead of answering for them. These small steps help build positive self-esteem and help your child know, “Yes I can do hard things!”
9. Model Good Listening and Talking
We don’t always know who around us is deaf or hard of hearing. Let’s be sensitive to the needs of others, by looking at our own way of speaking and adjusting to make sure that everyone can understand. These are good habits everyone can use. Speak more slowly, look at people when you to speak to them, turn on captioning in Zoom and other platforms, and lean in to make it easier for everyone to follow you.
How Do We Hear?
Sound comes to us by the ear, but actually we process what we hear in our brain. When the ear is not able to receive sound, it’s as if a bridge is out. Something must be done so your child can hear the world around them. If you think your child might have a hearing loss, consult your local Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) provider for further testing and support: www.ehdi-pals.org.
There are many other ways to create safe places for your child to learn to listen and talk, and this list is just a start. You know your child, your home, and your environment best. Do what feels natural to you and is exciting to your child. And above all, remember that even hard days create opportunities for language growth. Trust yourself to lead the way on helping your child build strong listening and spoken language skills.
Additional tips and support for creating a language-rich home can be found at www.agbell.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Gayla H. Guignard, M.A., CCC-A/SLP, LSLS Cert. AVT has served as the Chief Strategy & Programs Officer for the Alexander Graham Bell (AG Bell) Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing since 2015. By training, she is an audiologist, speech-language pathologist and Listening and Spoken Language Specialist Certified Auditory-Verbal Therapist. In addition to clinical practice with children and families, she has led state programs in Indiana, including EHDI, and is focused on systems that help improve outcomes for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, including the preparation of professionals in the field.
Melody Bertrand is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Alberta, Canada. She has worked with the Alexander Graham Bell (AG Bell) Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing since 2008 in a variety of roles. She currently manages the association’s professional content portfolio, providing those who work with children who are deaf and hard of hearing with tools they can use in their practice. Melody has a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
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