Helping a child with hearing loss learn to listen and talk can be a lot of fun, but when the going gets tough, it’s easy to slip into patterns that we think are helping us but are really pushing us further from our goal. Parents and professionals can be equally guilty of these bad habits. What are they and how can we prevent them and lead to real, lasting language growth? Let’s start with a trip to the pet shop…
No Dog Tricks
Teaching a dog a trick can be fun. It’s a cute skill, a novelty. But it really tells us more about the human trainer than it does about the dog. After all, no dog woke up one morning and decided he wanted to learn to shake hands (paws?) on command. Left to his own devices, Rover rolls over when he wants to roll over, not because you told him to.
The same thing can apply to children when we ask them to “perform” instead of engaging them in real, meaningful activities and conversations. Giving a child an endless list of commands to assess word knowledge (get the blocks, touch your nose, find the octopus, etc.) tells me much less about his skills than observing him engaged in an activity. More natural situations can give us that exact same information.
Sometimes, a parent will be so proud of a child’s new skills that she’ll ask him to show off his new accomplishment at our next session, completely out of the blue. While I share their excitement, I don’t know if I’d be thrilled to be a command performer either. Usually, the child won’t do it, then the parent gets frustrated, and no one is happy.
When we ask a child to perform what I call a “dog trick,” we really have to ask ourselves, “Is this for him or is it for me?” Therapists can be just as guilty of this as parents. I am much, much more concerned that a child has time to process, deep understanding of language, and spontaneous use of his skills than I am in how well he can perform to make me look good for “prove” that I’m successful at my job. I want kids to live life fully, not to put on a show to feed my ego.
In a similar vein, we can also fall into the trap of making our children into parrots — endless imitation machines. While imitation is a natural way that children — all children, hearing and deaf — learn language from the models they hear in the world around them, it can be too much of a good thing. When we have a child repeat what we say, we often slip into having them repeat a long sentence word by word, and then tell ourselves that they understood the sentence and could produce something of similar length themselves. Not true! One great indicator that we need to scale back our goals is if the child reaches a point where he needs to be fed the sentence word by word. It’s too much! I’d much rather the child produce a shorter sentence on his own than repeat me. It tells me much more about his own thoughts and abilities, rather than just his ability to mimic words. Additionally, when we fall into having the child just repeat, repeat, repeat, eventually, our requests for repetition become background noise for the child and he learns to tune us out. In that situation, I would, too! Our end goal is to raise a child, not a parrot. A parrot repeats what he hears without thinking about it, and what he says reflects more of our thoughts than her own. A child can learn to repeat when necessary, given a natural model with some acoustic highlighting, but I’m much more interested in hearing his own thoughts.