Communicating With a Hearing Loss: Understanding Children

For most of us with varied hearing levels, understanding children’s speech is just .. well, difficult.  Obviously, young kids are still learning to say things correctly and don’t hit every consonant (“I don wanna take a baff!”).  Also, many hard of hearing and late-deafened folks cannot hear higher pitches, which is the frequency range young voices tend to be. So that, in addition to their short attention spans, tendency to look and/or run around while speaking and the fact that sometimes they’re (gasp) just doing whatever they feel like whenever they feel like it can make communication challenging!

Here are some communication strategies that have worked for me with kids and maybe they will work for you too:

“I need you to look at me when we are talking.”  For some people, telling them what you need may be all you need.

“Come find me.” Because we probably won’t hear them if they bellow from the next room, it’s important for them to know if they need you, they need to come find you.  (Of course if this is your child or a child in your care, a baby cry light or tactile notification system should be in place.)

“Tap me.”  In groups, or if the child is behind you, you may not hear them.  This way if they tap you, you can respond.  Of course once they know this, they may tap, and tap, and tap, and tap..

Tell them the truth.  “I’m ________ (insert your label of choice: deaf, hard of hearing, etc) and what that means is my ears work differently than yours.  My eyes help my ears to understand, so it’s very important that you face me when we are talking, and point to what you need.” Explaining why you cannot understand them in simple, straightforward language can be helpful. Honesty really works well with kids.

“Show me.”  I use this one a lot with my daughter.  While we are a signing family, she may have heard a word or phrase at school and hasn’t seen the sign yet.  She can’t fully spell out words yet, so I’m left to decipher what she means from her speech.  When I ask her to show me what she means, it’s always a positive response because then we are off on an adventure with her leading the way – let’s go!

“What letter does is start with?” This works best with kids who know their alphabet.  But if they don’t, if you can pick out a few possibilities, like P or B, sound out the letter for them, “Does it start with a Buh?  Does it start with a Puh?” And you’d be surprised, even very young children can pick out letters if they are presented visually.  So an unclear word can turn into a longer activity if you bring out paper and crayons.

DRAW.  This will probably work best with children over 4.  Younger than that they are a bit abstract in their artwork.  Little Picassos.

SIGN!  This one is easy if you already know some ASL.  If you don’t, make it a project you learn together.  There are some great free sites that make excellent vocabulary references like ASL Pro and Lifeprint.  Also, ASL Nook provides fun family/kid themed ASL videos.  There’s also baby sign language classes designed to teach hearing children to sign before they can speak in order to reduce frustration.  Well this could definitely work both ways – clearer understanding all around!  Some additional incentives: it’s a “secret language” and they can sign with a mouth full of food.

Having ideas and responses at the ready give me more confidence in explaining what I need to kids.  And just like adults, children will take their cues from you.  Meaning if you act positively about your varied hearing level, and present interesting, do-able strategies, chances are they will jump on the communication train!  All Aboard!

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