Helping Classmates Understand Hearing Loss

In the past month, I’ve had some incredible opportunities to spend time with a group of children I don’t often see — children with typical hearing — teaching them about hearing loss and how better to understand their classmate who is deaf.  They’ve taught me a lot about hearing loss from a child’s-eye view and how we as parents and professionals can help all children be more integrated in their environment.

When we talk of “inservicing,” we often think about preparing teachers and other school staff for a child with hearing loss in the mainstream to ensure academic success, but school is not just about academics.  To have a socially successful mainstreaming experience, we must also connect with the other children in the child with hearing loss’s class.  Here are my tips for preparing, implementing, and following up on a successful inservice for children with hearing loss in the mainstream.




Involving the child with hearing loss is key to preparing for a successful classmate inservice.  Instead of talking about the child, making them the object of the presentation, involve him at whatever his developmental level might be to make him the presenter, more in control of the event.  This can be a truly empowering experience for the child and a great opportunity to practice speech, language, listening, and pragmatic skills.  Usually, I have a longstanding relationship with the child and family after serving as their therapist, so I like to take some time before the presentation to ask some guiding questions:  What is child’s own self-awareness about his hearing loss?  What is his comfort level for how much he wants to lead the presentation? What do the child and parent wish the other children in the class knew about hearing loss?  What doesn’t the child want covered?  (That last one sounds like a silly question, but it’s very worthwhile to ask — allowing the child to be in control of his own story is a critical step toward independence and self-determination, and shows a respect for the child that should be at the root of all of our practice.)  I like to prepare some of the presentation with the child, even working on a few activities and demonstrations that we can do together (more on that later).




Liasing with the classroom teacher is also important.  Aside from discussing the how/when/where logistics of the inservice, I like to find out her perception of how the child with hearing loss functions in the classroom, especially when it comes to peer relationships, and any topics she might want covered during the presentation.



Before traveling to the inservice, I gather an arsenal of materials.  I never have a rigid outline for how these in services will go, as I try to follow the child’s/class’s lead and let the conversation develop organically, so I may not use all of them over the course of the presentation, but it’s always good to be prepared for all contingencies.  Some of my sample gear includes:

  • Old hearing aid, cochlear implant, and Baha processors for the kids to touch, feel, and try on if they wish

  • Dolls and puppets with hearing loss (you can easily make your own by using puff paint on dolls with plastic heads and bake-able clay attached to puppets with hot glue)

  • Disposable ear plugs for the students




Though each presentation differs, based on the child’s skill level and the interests of the class, here are some basic components that I like to include.  Feel free to mix and match your own!


  • Introduction:  I usually like to have the child with hearing loss introduce me to the class.  This can range from, “This is Elizabeth.” to a longer introduction explaining my job and the work the child, family, and I have done together.  This can also give the child a chance to share as much (or as little) about his own hearing history as he wishes — how long he has had hearing loss, why he has had hearing loss, his devices, etc.


  • How Hearing Works:  I give an age-appropriate overview of the anatomy and physiology of the ear.  Another great activity to is to have the child each become a part of the auditory system and show the “domino effect” of how messages get passed from the outer, middle, and inner ear by playing the game “telephone.”


  • Trick Question: After explaining the anatomy/physiology of the hearing system, I think it’s very important, even to very young children, to drive home the point that hearing happens in the brain.  So I ask, “Where does hearing happen?” and inevitably get answers of all the parts of the ear we just discussed.  It’s a great attention-getter to inform the students that even though the ear gets the sound in, the BRAIN is where all the real listening happens.


  • Hearing Devices:  So often, hearing devices are a mystery to the students.  They may have seen them on a classmate or relative, but have not had the opportunity to actually touch and manipulate the devices.  Even if the student in the class uses just hearing aids or just cochlear implants or just a Baha, I like to bring examples of all devices and talk a bit about each and how they work.  You would be amazed what the opportunity to try on a cochlear implant dummy processor does to demystify the whole experience to children with typical hearing.


  • People with Hearing Loss:  In another attempt to normalize hearing loss, I like to ask the students if they know anyone with hearing loss (interestingly, sometimes the first person students will name is their classmate with hearing loss, while in other cases, it takes some time for them to realize and apply that label to their friend).  Often students will know a friend or relative with hearing loss, or a famous personality.  Derrick Coleman’s Super Bowl win has done a lot to increase awareness of hearing loss.  If students play music, I like to remind them that Beethoven had a hearing loss.  If students are involved in scouting, they’re often interested to learn that Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, was hard of hearing.


  • Hearing Loss Professionals:  It is also fun for children to learn the names of different occupations of people who deal with hearing loss, not only for their general knowledge but also to promote interest in the professions.  Children often learn about other community helpers in school but rarely learn words like “speech language pathologist” or “audiologist.”


  • Protecting Your Hearing:  I like to use a decibel meter app to measure the ambient noise level in the room and help students identify sources of noise in their classroom.  I also use a familiar sounds audiogram to demonstrate dangerously high levels of noise and show how that exposure can permanently damage your hearing.



  • Learning a BAD WORD and Other Strategies:  My biggest attention-getter is promising the students that I will teach them a “Bad Word” at the point of the presentation.  What’s the word?  Nevermind.  I teach students that this is one word you should never say to someone with hearing loss (or anyone, really), because it shows that they are not important enough for you to take them time to give them your message.  This segues into a whole discussion of tips and tricks for better communication with a child with hearing loss in the classroom.  Here, if the child with hearing loss is comfortable, I often have him talk about difficult listening situations and communication strategies that help him hear best at school


  • Cool Hearing Tricks:  While I think this part of the presentation is kind of hokey, kids seem to love it, so with and only with the permission and participation of the student with hearing loss, we show the class some of the cool things that a person with hearing loss can do.  For example, to demonstrate how an FM system works, I have the child with hearing loss be my partner in performing a magic trick.  I tell the class that I’m going to say the name of a color into the FM mic and send the child with hearing loss out of the room.  When the child comes back and can correctly repeat the color despite being out of earshot, the classmates are amazed!  Another fun trick is to show how magnetized items can stick to either the CI processor magnet or the coil in the child’s head.  The “Unfair Spelling Test” is also a fun and funny way to get kids engaged and give them a deeper understanding of hearing loss.


  • Mythbusters:  I like to quickly run through some true/false questions like: People with hearing loss can’t drive, people with hearing loss all use sign language, people with hearing loss can’t talk on the telephone, etc. to help shake some of the common misconceptions that do not fit with today’s generation of listening, talking children with hearing loss.


  • Question and Answer:  Then, I open the floor for the students’ questions.  I’ve listed some common questions and suggested responses below.  One of the most important things to keep in mind during this part is that if the child asks a question about the student with hearing loss, the question should be directed to the student with hearing loss.  Students may need some prompting for this.  For example, if a classmate asks, “Why is he deaf?” my response is, “Ask him.”  It’s my policy never to speak for the student if the student is capable of speaking for himself.  I also like to promote direct peer-to-peer communication whenever possible.



General tips for a successful presentation:

  • Before any of my “explanatory” parts of the presentation, I first like to ask the children to explain the topic to  me.  It helps engage them in the inservice and gives me a good gauge of what they already know, any myths that need to be corrected, and the level of information they can handle.


  • Little things like this make a BIG difference in how we see the student, how other students see the student, and how the student sees himself.  Do not underestimate the power of your word choice.  The words we choose show our attitude, and children are watching like hawks for an attitude to model.  Make yours a good one.  For example, I like to call any accommodations I discuss (e.g. eliminating background noise, facing the speaker, moving to a quiet corner) “better communication strategies” instead of “ways to help [Student with Hearing Loss].”  The former indicates that good communication is helpful for everyone, while the latter infantalizes the child with hearing loss and makes them seem like a passive recipient in need of aid, instead of an equal communication partner.  Another example, discussed above, is that if classmates ask a question about the student with hearing loss, the question should be addressed to, and answered by, the student with hearing loss.


  • Keep the pace brisk and the tone light.  Vary information-heavy parts of the presentation with hands-on activities and demonstrations.  Keep in mind the class’s age and developmental levels.


  • For older students, you can easily tie this presentation into classes about anatomy and physiology, the physics of sound, career exploration, health, or psychology.


  • Remember the power of the word “some” — some children have hearing loss and some don’t.  Some kids wear hearing aids and some don’t.  Some is such a beautiful, neutral word that makes having hearing loss, like any other of the range of human differences, seem like just another characteristic of who we are.


  • Above all, follow the children’s lead — both the child with hearing loss and his classmates!




Frequently Asked Questions (and some tips on how to answer):

  • How does someone “get” hearing loss?  Will X always have to wear a cochlear implant? — these questions get at what I think is a genuine fear of the unknown for children.  Is hearing loss something that could happen to anyone at any time?  Is it something that sticks with you always?  For the second question, I like to explain it to children by saying, “My skin is white.  It’s how I was born and it always will be.  That’s just part of me.  Just like having hearing loss.”


  • What does a cochlear implant sound like?  Here, I like to play some of the demonstrations, but if the children are old enough, I also like to ask, “What does red look like to you?” and discuss differences in perception and how cochlear implant users learn to interpret sounds in the brains to make them sound much fuller than these simulations sound to people with typical hearing.




Usually, classes have more questions than I can answer — always the sign of a successful presentation.  I leave the class with my email address and encourage them and/or the teacher to pass along their questions to me.  It’s a great way to continue the relationship and keep the lines of communication open, making it clear that hearing loss is not an off-limits subject, and just as normal as discussing the weather.  I also periodically check back in with the teacher and student to see how things are going and assess the need for any follow-up training.



Are you interested in preparing a terrific inservice to explain hearing loss to your class, organization, coworkers, or other group?  Contact me for our new service that can help you design a winning presentation for your school, house of worship, or organization — live or via videoconference technology.  

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