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Creating a Language-Rich Environment At Home - An Introduction

By Lindsay Hutton

Child Hearing Aid

According to Silent Voice, an advocacy organization for the deaf, nearly 90% of deaf and severely hard-of-hearing (HH) children are born into hearing families. As with every difference in ability presented in an unfamiliar setting, parents can easily be fraught with fear and feelings of inadequacy when faced with parenting a child who is deaf/HH.

There are a host of options available to parents of deaf/HH children to encourage a language-rich environment. Depending on your child's condition, several technologies and therapeutic options are available, and it's important to become familiar with not only the medical implications of your child's hearing loss, but with the various treatment approaches that best suit your family and your child's needs. These can be overwhelming decisions, and seeking guidance from your local public health office is a good place to start.

Maria Melo is a respected speech language pathologist and auditory/verbal therapist with Toronto Public Health's Infant Hearing Program. For the past 18 years, she has coached and mentored families of deaf/HH children. "It's important that I work with the parents with their vision and ideas about what they want for their child," says Melo. "I primarily work with an auditory/verbal approach, though some parents would like a visual approach as well."

Several studies of deaf/HH children and youth suggest that your child's ability to communicate effectively is a key indicator in maintaining a healthy self-esteem and success in school and work. With this in mind, Melo's advice on job-one in creating a language-rich environment at home? Make it fun. "All of the strategies and techniques I use focus on having fun in the early years," says Melo. "Not just for the child, but for the parents and caregivers, too."

The Environment

"For a child learning the basics of listening, the child needs to have a quiet environment without a lot of background noise," says Melo. "For example, when a parent or caregiver is reading a book to the child, there shouldn't be a TV or radio on -- you want the speech signal to be the most salient signal. It's easier for the child to process information that is coming from a physically close source."

Talking to Your Child

"We recommend that the caregivers, and anyone else close to the child speaks in a regular voice. Don't over-articulate or speak louder -- that's going to distort the sound patterns. Once you speak louder, you lose the melody in your voice has and it goes in a higher pitch, which is harder for the children to understand."

Melo also suggests that the best way to foster communication with your child is to speak just as you would with any other child: "What we're doing here is giving lots of room for the child to learn to listen. Any child will need six to ten months of good listening experience to start with sound production."

However, Melo also encourages caregivers to remember to leave pauses in between sentences to give the child a chance to process and reflect on the information and, eventually, create responses. "Just because a child can't speak, doesn't mean they won't give responses. Sometimes it's just a smile or an ‘ah!'" says Melo. "But you don't have to talk all the time!"

Books, Books and More Books

It's never too early to start reading to your child. Be sure to keep your choices age-appropriate and full of bright, high-contrast colour. In addition, Melo recommends sitting the child on your lap or right next to you. "Have those moments to just sit down and relax. Encourage the listening posture, make comments about the stories with lots of smiling and facial expressions," says Melo. "But keep it fun - you don't want it to feel like a classroom, otherwise it stops being fun for the child and they lose interest."

Finally, Melo encourages parents to keep their cool in their efforts. "Life is busy, and even more busy when you have children," says Melo. "The most important thing is that the parents feel comfortable about the entire process."