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How hearing loss affects school performance

Contributed by | Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

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Imagine a student who is inattentive, poorly behaved in class and getting bad grades. Your first thought might be that the child has a learning disability. But you also might want to consider the possibility that the child has hearing loss; it is more common than you think. Quite often hearing loss, whether mild or severe, has a profoundly negative effect on academic performance.

According to the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC), 1.3 out of 1000 8-year-olds have bilateral hearing loss (loss of hearing in both ears) of 40 decibels (dB) or more. And 14.9 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 19 have hearing loss of at least 16 dB in one or both ears. Even unilateral hearing loss (hearing loss in only one ear) has tremendous impact on school performance; research shows anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of children with unilateral hearing loss are at risk of failing at least one grade level.

hearing loss and student performance
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Hearing is critical to speech and language development, communication and learning. Hearing loss causes delays in development of speech and language, and those delays then lead to learning problems, often resulting in poor school performance. Unfortunately, since poor academic performance is often accompanied by inattention and sometimes poor behavior, children with hearing loss are often misidentified as having learning disabilities such as ADD and ADHD.

According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), children who have mild to moderate hearing loss but do not get intervention services are very likely to be behind their hearing peers by anywhere from one to four grade levels. And for those with more severe hearing loss, intervention services are even more crucial; those who do not receive intervention usually do not progress beyond the third grade level.

What are the reasons behind this education gap? It’s certainly not a question of intelligence; just because a child has hearing loss doesn’t mean he is any less capable of doing well in school than his hearing peers. Sometimes the classroom environment itself doesn’t support a child with hearing loss; A busy teacher who has many students to tend to, or a teacher with a poor understanding of hearing loss, often is unable to alter his teaching style or keep a student’s hearing loss in mind while teaching a lesson or assigning homework.

For example, if a teacher turns his back to the students while teaching, his voice will be directed toward the blackboard, causing a student with hearing loss to miss part of the lesson. Oral changes to homework assignments, an unfamiliar accent or a teacher who talks too rapidly can all hinder the learning progress of a student with hearing loss.

In addition to classroom environment, certain subjects are just intrinsically more difficult for a child with hearing loss. While the ability to hear affects all aspects of academic achievement, perhaps the areas most affected are those involving language concepts. Vocabulary, language arts, sentence structure and idiomatic expressions are extremely difficult for a child affected by hearing loss to grasp.

Frustration and confusion can also play a big part in poor academic performance. Though he might have perfectly normal speech, a child with only mild hearing loss can still have trouble hearing a teacher from a distance or amid background noise. Imagine the difficulty and confusion of not being able to hear the high frequency consonants that impart meaning in the English language (ch, f, k, p, s, sh, t, and th) and you can begin to understand some of the academic struggles a child with hearing loss faces on a daily basis.

In addition to academic struggles in school, children with hearing loss can also experience trouble socially. Communication is vital to social interactions and healthy peer relationships; without the ability to communicate effectively they often experience feelings of isolation and unhappiness. If a child with hearing loss is excluded from social interactions or is unwilling to participate in group activities due to fear of embarrassment, the result is that she can become socially withdrawn, leading to further unhappiness. Children with hearing loss are also slower to mature socially, which hinders peer relationships.

There is good news, however. Studies have shown that early intervention is the key to fostering peer level academic performance as well as healthy social interactions in kids with hearing loss. A new study, the results of which were released in February 2015, supports this, showing that children with severe-profound hearing loss performed in the average or above average range less frequently than their hearing peers. Those children that had greater parental involvement, earlier intervention and that spent more time reading scored higher on the tests than others.

As the “offensive line” in the classroom, teachers are in a unique position to help students by arming themselves with the knowledge as to how a student with a hearing loss receives and understands information, as well as comprehensive knowledge of an individual student’s capabilities and level of comprehension. Since early intervention is key, signs teachers can watch for in the classroom include:

  • Inattentiveness
  • Inappropriate responses to questions
  • Daydreaming
  • Trouble with following directions
  • Speech problems

A child who is struggling in school, especially if she has a family history of hearing loss or has had recurring ear infections, should be seen by a hearing care professional for an evaluation. Depending on the results a proper course of intervention can then be recommended. Intervention is crucial, because a child that is supported both at school and at home has the best chance of success, academic and otherwise. If you believe your child is suffering from hearing loss, take her to her pediatrician or your local hearing healthcare professional today. Check out our directory for one near you.

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