Choosing a school for a child with hearing loss can be difficult. The first question is whether to mainstream a child or whether to place the child in a special school or class.
There are basically three types of school programs: Mainstream schools, Sign Language programs, and total communication programs. Mainstream programs provide good language models and the academic goals for the child with hearing loss will be the same as those of their hearing peers. Programs where the children sign have not had a good academic record, with reading levels of third to fourth grade the time of high school graduation . Communication may be easier because it is visual, but the overall academic benefit is a problem. Total communication (TC) programs attempt to combine the best of both worlds, but if one decides to select a TC program it is important to know if it is really TC. The goal of TC should be to teach the child both oral and sign skills. However, some programs, like one I recently visited, have the teacher signing full time so, although she is also speaking, the kids are focusing on the visual and the children are not really being asked to develop auditory listening skills.
WHAT TO CONSIDER IN SELECTING A MAINSTREAM SCHOOL
It is very important for a child in a mainstream classroom to be able to hear, so good acoustics are essential. Avoid “open classrooms” where two or more classes share a space with bookcases separating the groups. I cannot imagine how hearing children manage in these settings. It would be impossible for children with hearing loss.
Try to select a quiet classroom if possible. Given the choice, pick a classroom on the quiet side of the building rather than the side facing train tracks or a highway. For early grades when there is a block corner, consider donating carpet scraps to the block corner to reduce the noise.
Help teachers understand the need to reduce noise by keeping doors and windows closed, and by not using things like the pencil sharpener when people are talking. It is also helpful if everyone learns to take turns speaking so only one person speaks at a time.
Is it important that the school has experience with children with hearing loss?
There are advantages to having school staff with a lot of experience helping children with hearing loss maximize their performance, but experience is not the most important thing. First of all, there are many different kids of “experience.” If a school staff did not receive any assistance in learning about hearing loss, then their experience will not be significant. The questions that are important are really whether the school is willing to have a child with hearing loss and to make accommodations for the child’s needs. Are they willing to learn about hearing loss? Will they move a child’s seat to enable her to hear? Will the school speech pathologist be willing to learn about hearing loss? Will the school provide teacher of the deaf services? Will it make accommodations in the IEP or will it try to offer only limited services? The attitude of school staff trumps experience. Is the teaching staff willing to use an FM system? (They have to by law, but if they are not willing they can make it difficult.)
No decision is final
It is important to remember that no decision is final. We make decisions based on the information available to us at the time. A decision about selecting a school may be right at one time but, that does not mean it will be the right school placement years later. As families get to know a school better they may decide that that particular school is not the right placement. As a child’s needs change, school needs may also change. So it is important to keep an open mind, and if the time seems right for a change, then bite the bullet and make the change.