As a child grows, so do his abilities to socialize and interact with those around him. When children approach the beginning of formal schooling at about five or six years of age, a whole new world of social experiences opens up for them to explore. How can we help ensure that our children with hearing loss are up to the social challenges of kindergarten and elementary school years?
Like any higher level skill, the foundations of socialization are built upon linguistic competancy. While language-free parallel play may work well for babies, social development cannot go very far without a structure of communication skills to support it. It cannot be said enough — a strong foundation in listening and spoken language is the prerequisite for the development of more complex skills. We need to send our children into these new environments with both the language and the social skills to participate fully in the mainstream.
Antia, et. al (2003) found the following skills beneficial in encouraging peer interaction between children with and without hearing loss: Does the child have the ability to extend and respond to greetings? Can the child respond to questions like, “What is your name? How old are you?” Can he ask them of others? Can the child approach peers and introduce himself (“Hi, I’m Kevin. What’s your name?”) Can the child extend and respond to invitations to join activities? Is she able to say things like, “Can I play?” or “Want to play with me?” or “Do you want to go on the swings?” or “Can I have a turn?”
These skills are not learned in a classroom. To achive social competence, children must have social experiences. Involving children in extra-curricular activities can help them develop lifelong skills, as well as give them an opportunity to socialize in environments that are not as language- and listening-dependent as school.
Parents, caregivers, and professionals can also aid in this transition by modifying their interactions with elementary-aged children to facilitate more age-appropriate social skills. When children with hearing loss are younger, we, adults, spend much of our time modifying our communicative interactions to better suit their needs. We patiently repeat ourselves, use the sing-song melodies and exaggerated intonation of parentese, and give our children lots of one-on-one attention. This is great, and, in many ways, it is responsible for bringing them to the point of mainstreaming success, but it is also a double-edged sword. Having grown up as “therapy kids,” children may be used to an environment that follows their lead, filled with communication partners more than happy to adjust to the child’s interests and level. So, how do we break this cycle of “all about me”?
Teach turn-taking and equal talking time. When children with hearing loss are beginning to talk, we stop the world and hang on every last syllable. Once they’ve established communicative competence, we must draw clear boundaries to teach them when it is, and is not, appropriate to talk. Children must learn how to take turns in conversations, and how to enter conversations appropriately (“Excuse me, …”).
React to what the child says, not what you know he means. As adults, we often do the work for the child with hearing loss and respond to the content of the child’s message, not the actual words. Peers (other children) will often take each others’ statements literally. Play dumb to encourage the child to express himself in a way that can be easily understood by peers.
Prep the child by teaching social scripts before birthday parties or playdates. Talk about what to say when offered a food you don’t like, how to accept a gift graciously, how to settle disagreements over what to play, etc.
In therapy, it’s easy to follow the child’s lead and let him play however he’d like. As long as the speech, language, and listening goals are being accomplished, who cares, right? Not so much. Think about the implications of “not playing by the rules” on a more real-world scale, and encourage only those behaviors that you want generalized beyond the therapy room.
Encourage independence by allowing children to solve friend squabbles on their own.
Encourage empathy and develop theory of mind by asking the child how he thinks other people felt or would feel in certain situations.
Ask questions like, “What would you do if…” about social situations or friendship dilemmas.
Stay in contact with the child’s classroom teacher. Ask about children who might be good for your child to befriend, any social issues he/she is noticing, or strategies that have been successful in fostering your child’s social inclusion in the classroom.
Children with hearing loss in elementary school are also growing in their ability to self-advocate and explain their hearing loss and equipment to peers. Provide a good model for your child by explaining his or her hearing loss in age-appropriate, simple, and neutral language. Hearing loss need not be a dirty word nor should it be a constant focus of how “special” the child is. Hearing loss, like brown hair or green eyes or freckles, can be a part of your child, but not his or her defining characteristic.
For more information on social skill development in children, check out the topics and activities at Social Skills Central.