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Hearing Loss and School.

Socializing and making friends at school can be difficult for any child. While the parents of deaf or hard-of-hearing children may worry that their children will have an even tougher time than most, that’s not necessarily the case.

Ellen Winkler’s son, Jagger (pictured above with his siblings), was deafened by meningitis at age 17 months; he received bilateral cochlear implants less than two months later. Through hard work and dedication, on his family’s part as well as his own, Jagger has grown into a dynamic, confident, delightful child. “Does he have a lot of friends? Jagger is the mayor [of his school]!” laughs Winkler. “He can’t keep up with play dates.”

One aspect of school that’s particularly difficult for Jagger isn’t learning-related; it’s lunch.

While Jagger’s hearing loss does require significant accommodation, that fact sometimes works in his favor. “Jagger’s friends say he is bionic, so it’s pretty cute,” says the mother of three. “It’s fascinating for them. I don’t think there’s a stigma.”

One aspect of school that’s particularly difficult for Jagger isn’t learning-related; it’s lunch. “The cafeteria is one of the hardest parts of his day. He just can’t take how loud it is,” says the first-grader’s mom. As an alternative, Jagger’s school administrators allow him to eat his lunch in the office. Acknowledging that lunchtime is an important time for children to socialize, school administrators also let him choose a couple of friends to join him in the office every day. A lunch date with Jagger is a very cool thing.

How did Jagger make so many friends? “Children with hearing loss who initiate communication and social exchange with their hearing peers are children who are absolutely socially included,” says Debbie Schrader, an educational liaison at the House Research Institute.

Reaching out to other kids takes confidence, and building that confidence takes time. The Winklers began by setting high expectations for Jagger, as they did for their two hearing children. “The most important thing you can do is expect the most from your child,” says Jason Winkler, Jagger’s dad. “The parenting golden handbook is the same for hearing kids and hearing-impaired kids. If you don’t hold them accountable for real performance, you’re not doing them any favors.” Having high expectations tells a child that his parents believe he can achieve anything.

It’s important for a child to know not only that his parents believe in him, but that they’ll go the extra mile for him, too. “We never look back and think we didn’t do everything for him,” says Ellen Winkler. For her, the most difficult thing has been the effect that Jagger’s schedule has had on the entire family. At first, Jagger was in speech therapy three times a week—and one of those appointments was in a different city. “We flew from Wyoming to Denver every week for a year and a half,” says the boy’s mom. While hard to manage, that kind of time investment and commitment can provide a lifetime of skill and confidence.

Middle school principal Suzanne Webb says that working with children on self-esteem, and teaching them how to be good self-advocates at school, is the most important thing for parents. Webb is highly impressed with the social skills of Johnny Butchko, a sixth-grader at her school who has severe to profound hearing loss. “He is very confident,” says the administrator. “He likes what he likes; he finds people who like what he likes; and he engages himself.” That, says Webb, is a recipe for middle school success—regardless of hearing ability. It’s also a recipe anyone can follow.

Ellen Winkler describes Jagger as having the same sort of confidence. “He can do anything,” she says. “There is no, ‘I can’t’ in his vocabulary.” 

Self-advocacy can be the difference between a successful social outcome, and one that ends in hurt feelings.

The consequences of low self-esteem can be devastating. “Bullying: yes, absolutely that exists,” says Schrader, who works with children and their school administrators in her role as educational liaison. Principal Webb agrees that bullying is directly related to a child’s confidence level. “Middle school students, especially, can smell fear, and they can smell insecurity,” says Webb. “It’s almost in their makeup to pounce on that.”

Self-advocacy can be the difference between a successful social outcome, and one that ends in hurt feelings. “A lot of times kids this age think they are being funny,” says Webb. “But then there’s one day when it’s just not funny any more, and the student [being picked on] never spoke up to begin with to say, ‘Hey, you know what, that’s not funny. Please stop.’” Teaching kids how to stand up for themselves gives them the confidence to deal with these situations before they escalate.

Self-confidence isn’t all it takes to excel socially: children must also build social skills. Schrader says that teaching these skills begins at home. “The social use of language, appropriate eye contact, and appropriate manners foster social relationships at school,” says the L.A.-based educational liaison. “Even at McDonald’s: encourage your child to walk up to the counter and place his or her order. It’s critical that those skills are fostered at home because that’s a safe environment.”

Webb agrees. She encourages parents to invite friends over to give their deaf or hard-of-hearing children a safe environment in which to practice their social skills. “Kids can learn about what works for them, and what’s the best way for them to play or communicate,” she says. While family friends learn how to get along with the hard-of-hearing child, that child is also learning how to interact with other kids. Gaining the understanding of peers at home can teach a hard-of-hearing child how to communicate in other environments.

Believing in their kids, and expecting a great deal from them, is a common theme among the Winklers, the Butchkos, and other families with successful, confident, and socially well-adjusted deaf or hard-of-hearing children. Jason Winkler advises parents to teach their kids the same kind of skills they expect of hearing children. “Be demanding,” says Winkler, referring not just to academic performance but also to behavior and social skills. “It will reflect on them for the rest of their life.”

Editorial Staff
I work at Phonak and write for HearingLikeMe.com.

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