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The reason why children can’t hear may surprise you

Look, Listen and Learn is an old saying that still holds true today.

And while school entry sight tests are now common practice, the message to have children’s hearing checked before they start school, for the most part, falls on deaf ears.

Good hearing is critical for the development of language and learning. It’s also important for children to be able to socialise, and given the noise levels in most playgrounds any hearing issue, big or small, will put children at a social disadvantage.

So addressing hearing issues early is important for both academic and social development. BUT unbeknown to most:

  • there are different types of hearing issues AND
  • not all issues will be picked up by a standard hearing check.

Firstly let’s consider a few of the tell-tale signs of hearing loss:

  • student may watch the teacher’s face to lip read
  • asks peers for confirmation of what’s been said or watches others to see what to do
  • often says ‘what’ or ‘huh’
  • is slow to respond to instructions or responds inappropriately
  • easily distracted and often inattentive, can be disruptive
  • student isolates themselves at the back of the class and may be reluctant to participate
  • may have learning difficulties or language delays

The most common type of hearing issue is known as conductive hearing loss and is caused by either a blockage (such as wax) or damage to the outer or middle ear. Blockages can include a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum, often referred to as glue ear. In most cases, conductive hearing loss can be treated.

Sensorineural hearing loss is another type of hearing loss. It is a permanent issue associated with damage to, or malfunction of, the cochlea or the hearing nerve. Children with sensorineural or permanent hearing loss may need to be fitted with hearing aids, which in Australia are provided free by the Federal Government through Australian Hearing.

These hearing issues can be detected by a standard hearing test.

There is however another type of hearing issue, referred to as ‘listening difficulties in noise’, that is not picked up by a standard hearing check and it can cause a child to struggle in noisy environments like the classroom and playground.

Macquarie University Professor Harvey Dillon explains that a child may experience ‘listening difficulties in noise’ for a number of reasons:

  • an auditory processing disorder, which is a deficit in the way the brain processes the signals delivered to it by the ears. There are various types of auditory processing disorders, and at least some of them can be addressed by auditory training activities.
  • A developmental language delay which refers to a deficit in the child’s knowledge or use of language. In noisy places, we all use our knowledge of language to fill in the parts of speech that noise prevents us from hearing. We do this so easily we are usually not even aware we do it. If a child’s language ability is behind that of his or her age peers, noise will affect understanding speech more than for other children.
  • If the language used in the speech-in-noise test is the child’s second language, then the child is likely to be less proficient in that language than they are in their first language.
  • An attention deficit, even if the deficit is not at a level that would be classified as an attention deficit disorder, can prevent the child understanding as much as they would if they were able to devote more attention to the task.
  • Children with autism spectrum disorder may have reduced ability to perform auditory tasks, which might include understanding speech in challenging situations.

The Sound Scouts app includes a test of hearing speech in both quiet and noise so it can provide an initial indication of a child’s listening abilities. The app also adjusts for age meaning that it considers the child’s age when processing the result.

It’s important that children can hear in all situations but more importantly if they can’t, it’s vital that teachers and parents are aware of their limitations so the appropriate supports can be put in place.

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