by Meredith Flory

The image of reading a bedtime story to our children, snuggled up as a family while turning the pages of one of our own childhood favorites is in the minds of many parents as they await a new baby.  We know that reading to your children is a strong predictor of success in school, and it can be a part of a calming bedtime routine.  However, what if as a parent you discover that bedtime stories may not look exactly like you expected them to? 

I spoke with Kandice Hunt, a consultant and teacher for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing on ways to incorporate reading into a household that is also meeting special needs.  Hunt works for Carter Hears! a company that serves students with hearing loss in public schools across the state of South Carolina. 

Many hearing adults associate sound very heavily with learning – we expect that we will give our children instructions, teach them about the association of letters to specific sounds, and use verbal cues to communicate.  For special needs children, depending upon their specific diagnosis, parents may not be able to rely on communication skills they already have, but they can still encourage their child’s development for the abilities they have.  For the families Hunt works with, reading is still an important and vital part of family bonding and learning, with adjustments to support the child that may not be able to hear the book being read aloud.

Hunt addressed the first steps that parent’s take when parents learn that their child is deaf or hard of hearing.  She states, “they immediately have to jump into research to decide upon the best technology and communication mode for their child and their family” and lists that some of those choices include hearing aids, American Sign Language, or cochlear implants.  Even focusing on this one particular medical challenge, “how parents approach reading to their children will depend on the type of hearing loss, type of technology, and the mode of communication.”  She encourages that parents “can read to their children either through spoken language or sign language, or both!”  Many of her suggestions may be helpful to families facing other challenges as well, or families that want to make story time a more dynamic experience.

As a child with hearing loss ages, the approach to story time may need to change and Hunt explained that, “for infants, it is best to read to your child face to face.  As the child develops, it is best to sit the child in your lap and either read into their ear or engage them with signing on the pages of the book.  This will help children develop a connection to print.”

As children with special needs age and develop, learning to read may be a source of frustration, but family members can work to help the child find reading to be a worthwhile and enjoyable pursuit.  Hunt points out that if families are choosing a listening and speaking route “they will want to ensure that technology is giving their child the best access to sound as possible.”  She advises working with a speech therapist who specializes in Auditory-Verbal Therapy.  For children with other special needs, making sure to have a team in place of therapists, medical specialist, and educators can give you the right advice for your families unique needs (be sure to look through the guide in this edition for local support groups and resources that may help with this). 

Hunt also recognized that this journey will be difficult at times for the parents as well as the children, and household that “have chosen a sign language, bi-lingual, or total communication route” will require a learning curve for parents as well because “90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents.  It is highly unlikely that the parents will know sign language.”   She encourages using resources such as Signing Time and ASL Nook and to reach out to your state’s early intervention services “to pursue a Deaf mentor who should assist the parents in beginning to learn sign language” and also looking for local parent organizations that provide sign language classes. 

She also points out that “there are several strategies that parents should think about when reading to their children regardless of communication mode.”  Many deaf/hard of hearing children face a delayed vocabulary, and children who are not read to, or face a learning disability may face this challenge as well.  She shares that to combat this delay, both parents and siblings “can pull out key words and idioms that are used in everyday language and discuss the meaning and use of those words.”  Siblings can help at story time by helping to elaborate on texts and connecting the story to the real world as they talk to a younger brother or sister.

Family role playing with stories or possible world experiences can also help expand vocabulary and help a child feel more comfortable in different environments.  Hunt shared that thinking about ways a sibling can help their brother or sister is “very dear to me because I grew up with a Deaf brother.  Siblings can become involved by reading and acting out stories together.  Some communities offer sign language classes for children as well.”

Choosing stories of interests to the child is often a common theme in this column, and Hunt stated that this is an important concept with a special needs child as well. In addition to their interests, making sure to cultivate a reading lists that has characters with special needs can help a child feel empowered and can build empathy even in families where children do not face these challenges.  Hunt shared some of her favorites are The Junkyard Wonders by Patrica Polacco, El Deafo by CeCe Bell (a Newberry Honor book), Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and Deaf Child Crossing by Marlee Matlin.


This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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