When we think about language, we often think about the ability to speak clearly and put words together to create a thought. However, communication is not just the ability to string words together. It is so much more than that. Communication is a two-way street and to be competent requires the ability to be both a speaker and a listener. On top of that, one must understand the rules of conversation.
There are so many skills needed to be a savvy communication partner. Research on language has shown that it is not only the words, but much of a communication message is conveyed through body language (including facial expressions) and tone of voice. The same exact message delivered with a different tone of voice and different facial expression can mean several different things. For example, the sentence “I’m going on vacation,” can have at least three different meanings depending on how it is said. If said with a happy face and vocal tone, it can mean that the speaker is excited to be going on vacation. If said with a quizzical look and a questioning tone, it can mean that the speaker is surprised, not knowing about the planned vacation. And if said with a sad face and tone of voice, it could mean that the speaker is disappointed to be missing an upcoming event due to a vacation plan.
Children typically become capable communicators by learning incidentally and through experience. They interact with others and watch those around them, observing and in turn, learning the rules. The child with hearing loss, who is often already behind the eight-ball because of delayed receptive and expressive language, is at a disadvantage as he/she may not yet be ready to learn these rules through observation and experience.
Children with hearing loss who are not explicitly taught the rules of communication tend to compensate in other ways as they get older. There are some children with hearing loss who tend to be passive during interactions. While they are often considered to be quiet and shy, it is likely that they are unsure of what is being said and become afraid to speak up. They fear that they might be off topic or say something that has already been said. It is this uncertainty that takes over, causing some children with hearing loss to socially withdraw, especially in group situations.
There are other children with hearing loss, likely ones born with a stronger personality, that tend to dominate the conversation. They often over-talk everyone else, not letting others get a word in edgewise. These children likely feel that if they do most of the talking, then they won’t miss anything.
Each of these communication types can negatively impact the ability to participate in social interactions and to form friendships. So, how do we get just the right mix of the two? While a strong foundation in speech, language and listening skills is critical to having communicative competence, teaching social language skills right from the start is equally important. Children with hearing loss need to learn how to become active listeners and equal partners in social exchanges. They need to be explicitly taught the rules of conversation and how to repair situations when communication breakdowns occur.
It is crucial that parents, caregivers, and therapists involved in the lives of children with hearing loss use every interaction to encourage appropriate development of these skills. Here are a few “Do’s and Dont’s”
- Anticipate your child’s needs. Instead, teach your child to express his/her needs clearly, especially those related to self-advocacy.
- Allow your child to dominate social interactions or conversations, hanging on to their every word. It is easy to fall into the trap of being so excited to hear your child’s language developing, that you put on a “show” of all the newly learned skills when in social situations.
- Help your child right away during conflicts with peers. Allow a chance for some independent problem solving before stepping in to help.
- Always follow your child’s lead. Sometimes play the games you want to play, read the books that you want yo read, and talk about topics of your interest. Your child needs to learn to play with peers who may have different interests.
- Always let your child win in games. Learning how to be a good sport is critical to peer interactions.
- Model for your child good communication skills, be an active listener, taking turns in your conversations.
- Teach and model the importance of facial expression and body language.
- Teach and model differences in tone of voice.
- Teach your child to think about the feelings of others. Taking the perspective of others is a critical skill of social interaction.