Hearing Loss in the Classroom

I recently conversed with an audiologist about assistive technologies in the field and how this might be reflected in the classroom setting. Interestingly, for children who have unilateral or bi-lateral cochlear implants, FM systems can be used in the classroom or lecture-type settings in order to optimize the speakers voice and reduce background noise. To backtrack a little, cochlear implants are devices that are surgically implemented into the cochlea of the ear in order to stimulate hearing. A small receiver is placed under the skin behind the ear which helps conduct the passing of sound signals through the auditory nerve and to the brain. This surgery is performed when patients have very little to no hearing when evaluated through hearing screenings.

The FM system contains a few different parts: a microphone worn by the teacher (or speaker), a receiver worn by the individual, and a transmitter. There are various versions of these devices that allow for the student with a cochlear implant to listen to their teacher more clearly (as they are speaking into a microphone that is transmitting sound to the individual with the receiver).

This got me thinking, how can teachers better accommodate for students who have hearing impairments or hearing loss? 

According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in the 2013-2014 school year, of the 6,464 students served under IDEA, 77 had hearing impairments. While 1.2% of all students served may not appear to be significant, this doesn’t account for students with hearing aids or cochlear implants that do not have Individualized Education Programs (IEP). When factoring in the other percentage of students who have detectable levels of hearing loss in at least one of their ears, this jumps to around 15% of students. With these percentages, teachers should be aware of how to accommodate the individual needs of these students, with or without an IEP.

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Ellen Winkler is the mother of 7-year-old son Jagger who has profound hearing loss and has had bilateral cochlear implants since the age of 18 months. She explains that classroom environments can be extremely fatiguing for children with hearing loss as on top of their school work, they are facing additional challenges.

 “Because of all the background noise—music, air conditioning, the hum of computers, whatever—hearing-impaired kids never get a break all day,”

Through this realization of the prominence of childhood hearing loss, I believe that it is essential for teachers to be aware of a few ways to better teach these students. This may include devising specific strategies for the classroom such as seating placement, keeping the door closed to minimize background noise, coordinating audio technologies in conjunction with your student’s hearing aid(s), facilitating organized group work/conversation during class time, facing the student when speaking, adopting technologies like the FM system, and remembering to check in with these students periodically throughout the day. Jagger’s mother recalls a creative way that his kindergarten teacher adapted to Jagger’s learning needs and the FM system by developing a set a hand-signal codes to determine whether his assistive technologies were working. She was able to keep this subtle so other students didn’t think it was a big deal and they could incorporate it into their normal daily routine to ensure that Jagger was following the lessons.

In all, Ellen Winkler encourages parents and teachers to work together to create an environment where children are comfortable in their learning spaces and continues to push children to take the initiative to advocate for themselves based on what is and what isn’t working in the classroom.

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