One of the highlights of winter for many is the time off to travel and visit with extended family and friends that we may not see as often as we’d like.
As rewarding as those get-togethers are, they can pose some challenges to children who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families. Well-intentioned loved ones who don’t see the child often may have misunderstandings about the best ways to communicate with the child or what accommodations the child may need to participate in trips, conversations and festivities.
How Children With Hearing Loss Learn Differently
“As parents, we get so used to understanding our children’s needs and speaking abilities, it becomes a natural part of our lives,” says Geeta Shandilya, MSDE, CED, LSLS Cert. AVEd, Clarke teacher of the deaf and the mother of a child with hearing loss. Geeta’s daughter, Avani, uses bilateral cochlear implants to access sound.
“Most people don’t understand how speech and language skills develop in children with typical hearing abilities,” notes Geeta.
She offers “incidental learning” as an example. Incidental learning is knowledge gained from informal, non-educational situations and interactions. For example, a child with typical hearing might overhear a conversation on the bus about school vacation or casually listen in on their parents’ conversation about an upcoming family party while they’re coloring nearby. These small details make up a base of language comprehension and knowledge that children who are deaf or hard of hearing do not develop as easily.
“Language isn’t just naturally picked up by children who have barriers to accessing sound. Over 80 percent of language learning is incidental, and children with hearing loss have a hard time learning incidentally, especially in the initial period of learning to listen.”
“Most people don’t understand how explicitly [our] children with hearing loss need to be taught to speak or listen,” she adds.
How to Prep Extended Family, Friends and Peers
There are various communication challenges that can occur in social scenarios. For example, friends, family members or other children might not understand the child’s need for a quiet listening environment and how noise interference can impact communication. Or they might exaggerate their speech, speaking very slowly in an attempt to be understood — not realizing that slowing down speech can make it more difficult for the child to understand them due to such unnatural use of speech and language.
Tips for Adult Friends and Family
Geeta suggests telling the adults in your circle some basic ways to create a positive listening environment. It may be helpful to send a brief email or text before a gathering.
The reminder doesn’t need to be too detailed. Provide simple tips that can help friends and family to communicate more easily, such as:
- Face the child when speaking to them.
- Strive to limit conversations to one speaker at a time.
- Check in, discreetly, to make sure the child understands.
If the child will be using a hearing assistive device like a Mini Mic or a Roger, make sure the adults know how it works and pass it to the next speaker as needed. For some types of visits, such as a sleepover with cousins, it can be helpful to also share basic information about the device, such as what the lights mean and how to tell if a new battery is needed.
Tips for Peers with Typical Hearing
If the child with hearing loss will be spending significant time with younger relatives or friends they don’t see often, it’s worth giving the other children some additional guidance too.
These suggestions can go a long way in helping a child with hearing loss:
- Say the child’s name before speaking to them.
- If they’ll be participating in group activities, let the child with hearing loss take a later turn so they can observe the activity before they jump in.
- Remind the peers that there may be times that the child with hearing loss needs an extra moment to “get” jokes or sarcasm — they shouldn’t assume that a lack of reaction means the child isn’t interested or engaged.
A Reminder for Caregivers
One other note — especially if you’ll be traveling away from home — is to make sure the child’s hearing devices and any key accessories are in good shape, and that you have backups and chargers handy. Be sure you also have your audiologist’s contact information on hand, just in case you need to get in touch for troubleshooting or a replacement device.
Prep Your Child for Real-World Opportunities to Use Their Listening and Spoken Language (LSL) Skills
These events also provide important opportunities for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Parents and caregivers should prepare their child in age-appropriate ways to advocate for themselves and to practice their pragmatic skills.
“Different children have different levels of confidence in asking for help,” Geeta says. “But they can speak up when necessary.” That can be as simple as telling an aunt or uncle ‘I didn’t understand what you said,’ or asking for more detail if they missed something when a conversation’s topic changed.
Even young children can understand when to ask for a listening break or explain the basics of their equipment. And practicing these skills among loved ones can help them when they have to interact with the larger community. “Children can be shy about highlighting their deafness. As parents and caregivers, we must prepare them to own their difference and make them feel ordinary in their deafness,” Geeta adds.
It’s also worth pointing out to the child that in some circumstances, like a large family dinner with multiple people talking at once, everyone has some trouble hearing everything — they aren’t alone in having trouble keeping up.
Holiday events and get-togethers also provide a unique opportunity for children to build connections with their culture, family and social traditions, and meet new people (or reconnect with those they haven’t seen in a long time). And those are all opportunities to build listening and spoken language skills.
A family’s preparation can make the holidays an enriching experience. For example, Geeta says if you’ll be flying, watch videos about the airport together and think about the steps they’ll go through so you can prepare them in advance.
She also recommends making pre-experience books, if time allows. Using the flight example, you can use pictures or library books to highlight the various stages, too: “’We’ll be going to the airport, this is how we’ll board the plane, et cetera.’ Then, you can take pictures as you go and turn them into your own experience book once you get home,” Geeta continues.
Families can also provide the child with some basic scripts on how to talk to friends or family members they’re meeting for the first time. “They should know how to say their name, age and interests,” she says. They can also practice taking the next turn in conversation by asking questions such as “How are you?” and “Where do you live?”
Making Memories and Having Fun
Holiday travel in particular can come with an overwhelming number of new people, foods, different weather and more. Whether you’re headed to a beach, skiing in the mountains or to visit Grandma in another state, Geeta recommends reading books about the kind of place you’re going to and the experiences they may have there. “Doing that creates a lot of rich background knowledge so they don’t feel out of place,” Geeta says.
Once there, take advantage of the new environment to learn more and hone those listening and language skills. “Go on a nature walk. Carve out some time away from the larger family to give them a break and talk about their experiences or challenges. And take a ton of pictures,” she continues.
With a little planning and communication with family and friends, families can ensure the winter holidays are fun and low-stress for their children with hearing loss so they can fully enjoy their larger community and cultural traditions.