Hearing involves more than the ability to listen to music and participate in conversation. For young children, hearing plays an essential role in speech development, the accumulation of language skills and social engagement. When children experience any loss of hearing, it can impact learning, shorten attention spans, and create issues initiating and building social relationships. Knowing if a young child has a hearing loss, and treating it, is essential to protecting the development of these essential skills.
Many studies have been conducted to investigate the connection between hearing, speech and language development. Here are a few indicating the critical importance of hearing and learning.
One study1 published in the journal Reading and Writing showed that learning the alphabet, one of the earliest educational tasks for very young children, depends largely on speech. Scientists wanted to test the assumption that committing the alphabet to memory depends on the ability to master the relationship between letters and their sounds. They studied 89 deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) preschoolers and found that they used many of the same strategies as hearing children to learn the alphabet. Namely, as they learned the alphabet, spoken phonology, the pattern of sounds, played an “important role.”
Other studies2 have shown that young children with hearing loss have trouble learning new words. In the early years of elementary school, vocabulary is a very large part of the curriculum. To the extent that children cannot hear and learn new words in a variety of subjects, their learning and performance in school can be adversely affected.
The ability to hear also has in impact on the broader aspect of a child’s ability to adjust to new surroundings, including school. A study3 of children who had been adopted in the United States from various other countries highlighted the role that hearing (and vision) loss can play. It found that they were “significant predictors” for social problems, developmental delays, learning and speech/language problems and cognitive impairment.
Signs and symptoms of hearing difficulties
Infants are given hearing tests at birth. School age children receive hearing screenings when they enter kindergarten. However, hearing loss may still develop and parents are usually the first ones to notice. When parents are alert to the signs and symptoms of hearing loss they can take steps to ensure that their child receives early, effective treatment. They can also help pediatricians and educators to sort out the signs and symptoms to ensure that the child receives the right type of treatment in the right setting.
Learning disorders and hearing loss can cause the same symptoms but they require very different treatments. For example, a child with a learning disorder may have trouble concentrating, completing tasks and following directions. A child with hearing loss may exhibit the very same symptoms.
Learning difficulties require an individualized education program (IEP) while hearing loss requires audiology testing, physical exams, and assistive devices.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention4 provides these hearing loss symptoms:
- Unclear, garbled speech
- Delay in speaking
- Inability to follow directions
- Often asks people to repeat themselves
- Turns up the volume on the TV, electronic games
- Teachers report the child has trouble paying attention, hearing directions, does not respond when spoken to
What to do if you suspect your child has a hearing problem
If you suspect that your child may have trouble hearing, it is important to seek a physician’s advice. Keep track of when you notice symptoms of a possible hearing loss. A list will help you to relate specific examples to the physician.
Your child will be referred to an audiologist who can conduct pediatric-specific audiology tests to detect your child’s precise hearing levels and identify any loss. The audiologist will then recommend appropriate treatments and assistive devices.
Talk to your child’s teacher. It’s important that the teacher knows that your child may have a hearing loss so that special accommodations can be made. The child may be able to sit closer to the teacher, or placed in smaller groups to make it easier to hear. The teacher will become more cognizant of the impact of music or other noisy classroom distractions on the child.
If you believe that your child has a hearing deficit, early detection will lead to effective treatment. There are many child-size assistive devices for young children and the right one will make sure that your child can hear as clearly as possible in many different environments and activities.