Five Strategies to Guide Families on Their Educational Journey
Written By: Donna Fisher Smiley, Ph.D., CCC-A
As a school-based audiologist and previous clinic-based audiologist, my career has provided me with a unique view of several sides of the “story.” During the last several years, the school-based audiology team at Arkansas Children’s Hospital released the following recommendations with the clinic-based audiology team to provide some guidance for families who come through our clinic.
We hope that these suggestions will help you when working with children and families in your own practices.
1. Set families up for a positive school experience.
Encourage families to see the school as part of their “village” when raising their child who is deaf or hard of hearing. If we – as the professionals – use language that is negative (e.g., you will have to fight for everything you want.), families may take that stance and go in to the school environment with a negative view of school staff. In my 30 years of practice, I find that most school staff want to do the right thing for kids. We need to help families and children start off on a positive note in their school experiences.
2. Promote self-advocacy for the family and for the child.
Sometimes the word “advocacy” can invoke negative feelings. However, if we encourage families to approach advocacy as a means to actively support their child, the idea becomes less confrontational and describes more of a “journey.” Families of children who are deaf and hard of hearing need us – as the professionals – to provide them with useful tools to use in their advocacy efforts and to educate others about their child’s hearing loss. Useful tools, such as familiar sounds audiograms, realistic simulations and understandable guides for amplification, are just a few examples that will help families in their advocacy efforts.
3. Encourage families to think about what their child needs at school and whom to talk to at school to meet those needs.
Every child is different, and every child has different needs. Some children will need specialized instruction (i.e., special education), while others will be able to receive their education in regular classroom settings daily.
You must educate families about the availability and differences between a child having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and a 504 plan. Every child with hearing loss does not need specialized instruction. However, most students with hearing loss will most likely need some accommodations to ensure that they have access to instruction.
It is also helpful to know how the process works in your state or even in the local school districts. For example, in Arkansas, every school building has a designated special education professional. We encourage families to work with that professional if they want to begin the referral and evaluation process for special education. Hearing loss alone does not qualify a student for specialized instruction; that hearing loss has to have an adverse effect on the child’s education. You’ll want to avoid setting parents up for disappointment and failure by telling them all children with hearing loss will have an IEP.
When a Family Expresses Concern
Imagine this scenario: You are the clinic-based audiologist and a family that you serve tells you that nothing is going well at school. How can you help this family?
4. Encourage the family to think about specific concerns. Ideally, they should write them down. If they have trouble with this, they probably need more time to get organized before trying to speak to the school. Some examples of specific concerns might include that the child comes home with homework but has no idea what to do or how to do it. Or the child says he is not wearing his hearing aids at school. Non-specific concerns might include items like “The school just isn’t doing enough for him/her.”
Once the family identifies specific concerns, encourage them to talk to school staff about those concerns using the proper channels. When we counsel families about how to advocate for their children, it is best to encourage them to follow the “chain of command” as much as possible within the school.
It is always best if parents talk to the teacher first – just as we would want a family to talk to us as the service provider if they have concerns before they go to our supervisor.
5. If talking to the teacher fails to resolve the problem, then the parents may want to seek out the special education designee or 504 designee for their school. If the issue remains unresolved, the family can talk with the principal as he or she is ultimately the instructional leader of the building.
Families depend on professionals to help guide them in this unexpected journey that they find themselves on with a child who is deaf or hard of hearing. Providing families with the tools they need to approach the educational setting in a positive and productive manner is a responsibility that we should take seriously.
Working together for the child really is better for outcomes.
Dr. Donna Smiley is a certified audiologist and audiology supervisor for The EARS Program at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital.