Back to School: How to Help Children Who Are Hard of Hearing as They Return to In-Person Learning

ASHA Shares Strategies to Reduce Barriers Posed by Masks, Physical Distancing

August 10, 2021

(Rockville, MD) As the new school year approaches during a COVID-19 surge, universal masking in schools and other necessary public health measures may present some unique challenges for children who are hard of hearing, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that roughly 15% of school-aged children (ages 6–19 years) have some degree of hearing loss, making this a pressing issue.

Masks and social distancing can pose communication challenges for all children, but this is especially true for those who are hard of hearing. Masks dampen sound. Also, they can eliminate facial cues and prevent lipreading—elements that hard of hearing children often rely upon heavily in order to understand verbal instruction and communicate effectively. 

Also, for hard of hearing children who have been learning virtually, shifting to a physical classroom can be a difficult transition. Challenges may include not having access to closed captioning, not having hearing technology paired to their computer, and/or having more competing noise in the classroom (e.g., from other students or air conditioning units). In the process, children could miss classroom instruction. Furthermore, they—along with all children who receive accommodations and special education services—have had varied success with virtual schooling over the past year, and some may have experienced loss in learning, communication, and social skills.

Parents and caregivers can help hard of hearing children maximize their educational and social success as they return to school by doing the following:

  1. Advocate for classroom technology. Several technologies can improve the listening environment in the classroom. Classroom audio distribution systems (CADS) [PDF] involve the teacher wearing a microphone—thus distributing speech evenly throughout the classroom. This will benefit not only children who are hard of hearing but all students. The use of such technology can be written into a child’s individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plan.
  2. Talk to school staff about effective teaching strategies. Teachers may not be aware of just how difficult it is for children who are hard of hearing to understand speech with masks and social distancing. Inform them of things that they, as teachers, can do to improve the student’s ability to access instruction—such as wearing a clear mask, talking while facing the class rather than talking while writing on the chalkboard, providing written instructions to supplement verbal instructions, and double-checking with the student to ensure that they are understanding the concepts being taught.
  3. Consult your school’s educational audiologist. These professionals can help teachers arrange classrooms for maximum effective communication, provide guidance on technological solutions such as microphones or captioning, and provide input on a student’s IEP or 504 plan. IEP/504 plan coordinators should be able to put you in touch with your school’s educational audiologist.
  4. Help children wear masks with hearing aids or cochlear implants successfully. Wearing a mask while also wearing a hearing aid or a cochlear implant can be tricky and uncomfortable. As much as possible before school starts, practice taking masks on and off (this may be necessary during lunch or at other times during the day). Choose a mask for your child that ties in the back, if they can tie it themselves. Alternatively, use a button extender to attach the mask behind their head instead of behind their ears. Finally, you can use hearing aid clips, retainers, or cords to prevent a child from losing their hearing aid if it comes off when they remove their mask (or for any other reason). You can find plenty of options from online retailers.
  5. Encourage your child to speak up if they can’t hear. Practice ways that the child can ask a teacher or other staff member to repeat themselves if the child didn’t hear or understand the adult initially. Provide the exact vocabulary that a child can use to ask for help. If your child isn’t comfortable asking, you may be able to work with the teacher to develop a nonverbal signal that your child can use if they are having trouble hearing. 
  6. Revisit your child’s IEP or 504 plan. These plans may have been adjusted last year for virtual and hybrid learning—and likely will need to be adjusted again. It’s important to (a) include accommodations consistent with the learning environment and (b) assess a child to determine whether they require any additional services that address any communication and/or social skills that were lost during virtual learning.

For more information on communicating effectively while wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, visit ASHA’s website.

About the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for 218,000 members and affiliates who are audiologists; speech-language pathologists; speech, language, and hearing scientists; audiology and speech-language pathology support personnel; and students. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) identify, assess, and treat speech, language, and swallowing disorders.

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