Every parent wants to see their child feel socially in tune with their peers, to make friends and be invited to birthday parties. Yet many young children with hearing loss can be delayed in developing the critical social skills needed to fit in at school and beyond.
“Our initial thinking is that children with hearing loss are used to working one-on-one in their auditory verbal situation. They’re very good communicators with adults, but they’re not always used to working together with typically hearing children to solve problems,” says Anne Fulcher PhD, an Australian listening and spoken language expert.
Dr Fulcher draws on more than 40 years of experience and work with The Shepherd Centre, an Australian not-for-profit organisation that provides support for children with hearing loss and their families.
“Despite their children frequently being amazingly good linguists, some parents were reporting that they were not happy with their [child’s] social groups or they weren’t being invited to parties. We collated this feedback with research evidence from The Shepherd Centre indicating that children with hearing loss were often quite delayed in social skills compared to their hearing peers.”
So, what contributes to this?
Dr Fulcher says young children with hearing loss often spend a lot of one-on-one time with adults, in hearing therapy or perhaps with other children with hearing loss. As such, they can potentially miss out on opportunities to socialise with broader groups of people.
In addition, parents often use overly simplistic language when speaking to their child, focused on single, simple words, rather than exposing them to rich conversational language. They can sometimes be very protective, limiting their child’s exposure to group settings or answering on their child’s behalf.
As a result, these children can miss out on another aspect of listening and speaking – what Dr Fulcher describes as a “hidden language” – and this can lead to delays in developing social skills.
Because they may lack sufficient exposure to everyday social situations with their hearing peers, they can miss out on cues learned through body language, tone of voice and group play.
“Just as auditory/verbal therapy is so important to helping them develop the skills to listen and speak, social skills also need to be taught,” Dr Fulcher says.
Strategies to help you get started
These are some suggestions from Dr Fulcher to help your child be more socially successful.
1. Expand your child’s social circle
Give your child opportunities to learn how to interact with people of all ages and in a range of environments, in order to learn how to read body language and develop problem-solving skills.
“As well as those nice quiet learning environments, they need to be exposed to their peers if they’re going to be successful integrators,” says Dr Fulcher. “It’s a huge benefit.”
“One strategy to assist would be to place them in situations where they work with small groups of hearing children in order to solve problems, for example, when playing tactical board games.”
2. Talk about conversations and social interactions
“No matter how well they’re listening and how amazing they are, children with hearing loss are going to be somewhat compromised, particularly when they’re in noisy social groups,” Dr Fulcher explains. “Teach them certain things to look out for, like when it’s OK to interrupt when someone is speaking, or how to take turns and share.”
Also talk about how body language and tone of voice conveys how we feel. This helps children understand that there are multiple aspects to how we listen and express ourselves. It also prepares them for group settings with children by teaching them how to take turns and role play.
Help your child understand hidden language by labelling emotions and body language. For example, ‘Look at Jane. She looks sad. I wonder what’s making her sad?’
Similarly, use role play and find opportunities to ask your child to interpret and copy facial expressions to help them understand body language and facial cues. Dr Fulcher says there are tools that can assist here such as commercial board games and Apps.
3. Don’t treat a child with hearing loss differently
Avoid using simplistic language or speaking in single words. “Instead, you should talk to them as much as you can, just as if they are a hearing child. Bathe them in lovely, embellished language,” Dr Fulcher says.
Throughout the day, talk with your child about what’s happening, how you are making decisions and offering choices.
4. It’s never too early or too late to start
Social skills develop in children from a very young age, so it’s never too early to start. Simple everyday activities such as singing together, turn taking, imitating the infant’s actions and sounds are all the basis for tuning in to each other and having a ‘conversation.’ If your child is older and you notice they’re missing certain social cues, it’s never too late to help them learn. When the time is right, offer constructive tips and specific advice after observing a situation that could have been handled differently. Explain the hidden language they may have missed or how to act more appropriately. We never stop learning about self-awareness. It’s important to be constructive and supportive.