Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why Does It Matter How We Hear?

“Oh! Here…nope, not this one. It says, ‘hammer, anvil, and stirrup.’ I want one with the scientific words –malleus, incus, and stapes,” my eighth grader softly explains as he scans internet images of the ear on my computer, looking for just the right color scheme as well as correct labeling of the parts. We’ve been talking in great detail about how hearing works and how hearing loss impacts comprehension of spoken language. He’s fascinated and wants to put together a presentation to share with his classmates so that they can better understand how he perceives and processes sound. Finally, he selects the image below, inserts in into his presentation, and says, “perfect.”

Why does it matter how hearing works? Kids (and adults, too!) want explanations for how and why things work the way they do. Without concrete explanations, students often feel that misunderstandings are always their own fault. Many students express moments in school and in social situations of feeling dumb, confused, lost, or on the outside of the group. Helping them to understand how hearing works and how hearing loss impacts comprehension can alleviate some of the self-blame and negative feelings and instead empower students to advocate. All my students have self-advocacy goals and objectives in their IEPs, and learning about hearing fits right into those objectives. Even with my youngest students, we study diagrams of the ear, create our own diagrams and label the parts, and trace the path of sound up to the brain (what a great opportunity to include sequential language instruction!). Recently, my first grader was overheard telling a classmate who asked about her hearing aids, “Don’t you know already? Hearing aids make sounds louder and help sounds get to my brain.” 

As students get older, they are able to explore in more depth how hearing impacts language. One parent emailed me saying that my fourth-grade student drew a diagram of the ear during a family gathering and used it to explain to her grandmother who also has hearing loss, why dinner conversations are difficult to follow. Another middle school student showed me sketches of the ear and hearing aid that she had drawn while on the bus, explaining to her friends how she hears when they asked. As for my student creating his presentation? The change in him has been remarkable –once sitting in class unsure of what was going on and having few strategies to figure it out, he now advocates for information to be written on the board, alerts teachers when the FM is muted or muffled, and explains what he needs to new adults and peers. He can quickly sketch a drawing of the ear and explain where the breakdown occurs for him based on the cause of his hearing loss. He understands that it is not his fault when he misses what was said but that it is his responsibility to get the information. My student confidently presented his PowerPoint to his classmates, responded to questions, and received overwhelmingly positive feedback.  He no longer blames himself or feels badly when misunderstandings occur because he understands why; there’s a scientific explanation for mishearing.