Three years ago, Bonnie Stone, a first-grade teacher in Tulsa, Okla., detected certain patterns with one of her students that sounded an alarm. She noted that Luis, an English language learner, stayed seated after she called the class to circle time. During reading time, he would look at her face, not the book—a sign that Luis was speech-reading, which is when someone looks at the speaker’s lips, facial expressions, and gestures to understand the conversation.
Stone worried Luis had trouble hearing. She suggested he undergo a screening with the school district’s audiologist. He passed the hearing test. The behaviors Luis exhibited were being associated with either a learning disability or the fact that he didn’t speak English, and, therefore, didn’t understand. Stone remained doubtful.
One day, she encouraged another student to speak to Luis in Spanish. The student came back and told her that Luis wasn’t saying any words.
“Everybody kept telling me he had passed his screen, but I pushed for an auditory investigation—and I kept pushing,” says Stone, a 26-year veteran teacher. After another screening, “the results came back and showed he was profoundly deaf.”
Stone would go on to find two other students with some kind of hearing issue. One student had problems paying attention and was on ADHD medication. Stone suggested to the girl’s mother to get her daughter’s ears checked. When the mother came back to school with the results, the doctor had found that the first grader’s ears were clogged with wax. According to the Cleveland Clinic, ear wax buildup and blockage happens when when people use cotton swabs or hair pins to clean their ears. This tends to push ear wax farther into the ears.
The third student Stone suspected of having hearing issues exhibited behavioral problems, inattention, and excessive playfulness. She again, recommended a hearing screening, which uncovered the boy needed a hearing aid.
“These were three children I found in one year,” says the first-grade teacher. “How many kids have been relegated to learning disability classrooms or misdiagnosed with ADHD or sensory disorders? It can be easy to dismiss hearing loss in students, but this is an easy fix: before you diagnose with a disability, have their ears checked.”
Look for the Signs
In many schools, students only receive a hearing assessment if parents grant permission. Often hearing loss manifests itself in ways that are not visible or recognized by educators. Stone, who suffers from hearing loss herself, writes about her experiences in her blog, “Lost and Found: My Cochlear Implant Life.” In a recent post, she offers tips to teachers to help them recognize hearing loss in students.
- Don’t assume that inattention or lack of interest in learning are related to a behavioral disorder. While ADHD, autism, and sensory disorders have consumed the spotlight in education circles, hearing loss is a real and possible cause of behavioral and learning problems. ALWAYS assume hearing loss first and have the child screened.
- Don’t assume that a child’s academic difficulties are because they are learning a second language. Hearing loss isn’t selective about spoken language. It affects children who speak English, Spanish, Hmong, Arabic, and pig-Latin. If there is ANY problem in language development or communication, ALWAYS assume hearing loss first and have the child screened.
- Don’t assume that a child’s poor academic progress is related to a learning disability. A child with hearing loss may hearenvironmental sounds, including speech, but may be incapable of understanding speech due to their hearing loss. If a child is having difficulty achieving academically, ALWAYS assume hearing loss first and have the child screened.
Additionally, NEA has put together some a backgrounder, called Acquisition of Language from Birth is a Human Right, that lists more signs and symptoms associated with hearing loss in school-aged children, such as poor academic performance, delayed language and speech production development, and auditory processing problems.
The backgrounder also includes resources to advocacy groups and organizations that help with early identification of children who are born deaf or hard of hearing. To download a copy go to nea.org/hearingloss.
“The most important thing a teacher can do is to be aware. To know your students well and be willing to investigate,” says Stone.