Homeschooling a Child
who is Hard of Hearing
In her world, “tires” and “nests” were “ire” and “nez.”
When we first started considering homeschooling, I jokingly referred to myself as a “reluctant homeschooler” or a “reformed former public school teacher.” I never thought I would home school. We have a great public school system here. Two of my children had previously been enrolled in a wonderful private Christian school and I was not looking to bring my children home for their education. I learned, as I have several times in my life, how true it is that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
We are in the middle of our second year of home education, so I am by no means an expert on homeschooling. There are many great resources available in libraries and on the internet that are more qualified to handle the topic of homeschooling in general so I will leave that discussion to those sources and limit what I share here to the factors that are related to hearing loss: why we choose to home school; how it affected my teaching style and curriculum choices; and some things I have learned through the past year of homeschooling my hard-of-hearing daughters and their typical-hearing brother.
My daughter, Faith, was four years old when she was diagnosed with a bilateral moderate-to-severe sensorineural hearing loss. Shortly after, her baby sister Ella was also diagnosed with a loss and we soon had three pairs of hearing aids in our family, as I have a moderate-to-profound loss myself. Faith was evaluated by the Child Find office of our local school district and was offered enrollment in their Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities, which I declined. At the time of her diagnosis, she was enrolled in the private preschool at our church and performing well. I did not see her benefiting from placement in a program with children with multiple and much more severe disabilities. We instead opted for drop-in speech services at a local elementary school, consultation time with a deaf education teacher for the preschool staff, and the use of a district provided FM system. Her remaining time in preschool went very well with those services in place.
As Kindergarten approached, we began the task of deciding on appropriate placement for Faith. The school district offered her placement at our A.I. cluster site. (Texas uses the term “Auditorally Impaired” for students with hearing loss.) They cited privacy concerns and would not share with me the number of other students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing in our district, but I knew there were very few. The term “cluster site” was somewhat misleading because as far as I could determine there weren’t any other deaf or hard of hearing (d/hh) students there. Also, it seemed I had almost advocated too well during the preschool years because they were offering more services than I felt she needed, with lots of A.I. support in the classroom. As a former high school teacher, I had seen the mainstream kids with a special education label: some seemed to have a learned helplessness and depended on the accommodations instead of being pushed to work to their potential while other students knew how to work the system to their advantage, even if they were capable of doing more. It is a very fine line and I don’t discount the need for accommodations for students with an educational need at all; I just know how hard it is to effectively translate those accommodations into a classroom setting. I saw a very real potential for my daughter to start out learning that she could depend on someone else instead of pushing herself to achieve on her own.
My husband and I decided to pursue enrollment in the private school our two older children attended. I was shocked when we were called into a meeting with the elementary principal and special services director and they told us they didn’t think the private school was equipped to meet Faith’s needs. They were only looking at her on paper and that she had an IEP based on her hearing loss. I was heartbroken because I truly loved this school and I am not ashamed to say that I begged them to reconsider. After hearing more about Faith and her abilities during the meeting, the private school staff agreed to keep her enrollment options open pending the offering of services from the school district. I left the meeting in tears and, with frustration in my voice, I turned to my husband in the car and said “What is going to help Faith succeed more than anything is a small class size and a teacher who really cares! Someone who will try to understand her hearing loss and won’t be afraid to push her to her potential!”
Making the Leap
The look my husband gave me in response spoke volumes. It doesn’t get much smaller than a class of one. No one cared more about seeing Faith succeed than her own mother, and since I lived with hearing loss, I could understand and help her work through its impact on her education like no one else. I knew better than anyone what she was capable of and could push her when she needed it. My system was one she wouldn’t be able to manipulate to get out of things and the bar would be set high. We decided it was time to seriously consider homeschooling - and I was terrified.
My next step was to approach the school district and arrange for Faith’s upcoming IEP meeting to be immediately followed by a service plan meeting. Service plans are put in place for private school students who qualify for special education services from the local school districts. Since Texas recognizes home schools as unaccredited private schools, we fall under the same policies and procedures as private school students. Since Faith had been under a dual enrollment service plan when she attended private preschool, I knew what could possibly be offered, but there were no guarantees because the rules change when a student turns five. It would be the same process whether we chose private school or homeschool, which at this point in time was working in our favor.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that choosing to home school means giving up public school services. It may or may not, depending on the laws, which vary from state to state and even from district to district. Because it is often somewhat of a grey area, I have also learned that the first answer is usually “no” unless you know who and how to ask. Each school or district gets a certain amount of funding from the federal government for each child that qualifies for special education services. In Texas, the monies received by the district for those children who are placed in private schools or homeschooling must be set aside for services for those privately schooled special education students. That does not mean that every private school student that qualifies will receive services or that students who do receive services will be offered all the same things as he or she would if enrolled full time in the public school. It just means that the federal allotment must be spent on at least some of those students. It is up to the individual districts to set policies on how the funds are distributed. I am not a lawyer, nor do a play one on TV, so please don’t accept my interpretation of the regulations in Texas as gospel, but instead see them as an encouragement to do some digging into the laws and policies for your own state.
I was very pleased to find that the school district was quite agreeable to our requests and Faith was able to keep all the same services offered as in preschool, and the team even agreed to an increase in service time from the deaf education teacher, and allowed us to keep the FM system at home since education would take place here. When I realized that choosing to home school did not mean that I had to go it alone without the support of speech therapy services or the guidance of our wonderful deaf education teacher, abject fear began to subside and I began to think I might actually be able to do this. I still had all the overwhelming choices of curriculum and programs to make. My husband and I attended a home school curriculum fair that only served to overwhelm us even more. So I began asking advice of a few friends that were veteran homeschoolers. One of these friends recommended I take a look at a three-morning-a-week collaborative school for homeschoolers where her child attended. This part-time program provided us a valuable transition year and helped give me the confidence I needed to jump into to this new adventure.
Faith did well in her time at the collaborative school, even being promoted into the next class at the semester because of her emergent reading skills, At the beginning of Faith’s first grade year, we joined a one-day-a-week enrichment co-op. I feel that these classes serve as a valuable resource for several reasons. First, Faith is experiencing how to navigate a group learning environment with her hearing loss, but since co-op classes tend to be much smaller than a traditional public or private school setting, it is much easier for her to follow the classroom communication. Since we have chosen a co-op that focuses strictly on enrichment, she is learning the fun, extra classes in a challenging listening situation and leaving her core subjects, like language arts and math, to learn at home with me where one-on-one communication ensures she understands. Faith gets the opportunity to know other students and learn from other teachers without the pressure to keep up with the academics in that setting. One thing I often stress is the importance of “learning how to learn with hearing loss.” This is especially critical for those hard-of-hearing students in mainstream settings who “look hearing,” They need to be able to recognize when they have misunderstood or missed something entirely and feel empowered to advocate for themselves so they can access the information they need. Faith is very proficient at self-advocating, sometimes to a fault. At the start of the co-op semester, I mentioned to one of the directors that Faith would need to use an FM in class and Faith jumped in to explain for herself how her FM system works and why she needed it.
During that kindergarten year, Faith went from recognizing most letters and some letter sounds to reading beginning readers mostly on her own. I have to admit that teaching her to read was the one thing that probably terrified me the most. When my older son, Foster, showed signs of reading readiness in preschool, I picked up a beginning reader at the store one day and asked if he wanted to learn to read. He gave me a funny look and sat down with me on the couch, took the book out of my hand and proceeded to read the entire thing without stumbling over a single word, including appropriate inflection and pauses for punctuation. That was my experience in teaching reading! I knew Faith would need more, but I didn’t realize what that help would need to look like. She knew all the rules for phonics but didn’t seem to be making the jump from sounding out words to understanding their meaning.
Finding a Clue
Then came the epiphany at Cotton Patch. In case you don’t have one near you, Cotton Patch is a family-friendly restaurant chains with early American barn décor, waiters in t-shirts, and where chicken-fried steak is considered a gourmet meal. The children’s menu features activities to keep the young ‘uns busy while we wait for the famous cheese fries to arrive. Not the typical setting for educational enlightenment that would provide the “ah-ha!” moment I needed to understand Faith’s struggle to read, but that is where it happened and I will take those moments whenever and wherever they come. Faith had a paper with pictures in on column and “complete the word” corresponding labels in the next. One picture was of a black round thing that goes on your car, written “_ i-r-e”. I didn’t realize the struggle Faith was having with the word until she filled in the blank for the missing letter with an “i”; she had written “i-i-r-e”. When I saw how she answered the question, I pointed to the picture and asked, “What is that?” She replied, “An ire”. The light bulb went off! She could not make the connection between the phonetic sounds she put together to form words as she was reading and the group of sounds she knew as words from her oral language because they didn’t match! Her oral language was missing too many high frequency consonants to match what she was reading. In her world “tires” and “nests” were “ire” and “nez.” The word spelled “t-i-r-e” held no meaning because she did not associate that word that started with the high-frequency /t/ sound with the round, black thing on a car.
I wish I could say that once I identified the stumbling block, we were able to jump over it and Faith began reading like a whiz kid. Unfortunately, it just reinforced how much hard work lay ahead of us, but at least now I understood better how to attack the problem. On top of that, it just reinforced for me that the decision to home school was the absolute right choice for Faith. In order to overcome the disconnect between her oral-language experience and the written words she was now reading, we are literally going word-by-word and having to identify and reprogram those words that her brain learned orally with phonetic sounds missing. Throw in all the words in the English language that have silent consonants, like “know” or “wrong” and it is a challenge to explain why she has to learn to pronounce the /k/ sound at the end but not the beginning in “knock”. She truly needed a one-on-one custom tailored reading program that could not have happened in a traditional classroom setting with multiple other students.
Another benefit of being the only student in our class learning to read is that Faith has no one to compare herself with. In my opinion, one of the biggest barriers to learning comes when a student convinces himself he is not good at something. He doesn’t want to try because he struggles more than the other students and he doesn’t measure up. Since Faith isn’t comparing herself to other first grade students learning to read, she is confident in her progress and happy with her self and her achievement. She believes she can do it and valiantly continues the long, slow process of overcoming the issues seeded in living through her formative language years with an undiagnosed hearing loss. At this point, she enjoys school, loves books, and is eager to read. As an avid reader myself, I hope to raise children who enjoy the worlds of both entertainment and knowledge readily available through literature but reading is even more important for a person with hearing loss. When you cannot trust the information received through your ears, you must depend even more on the information revealed in the written word. For example, a college text book becomes the lifeline when having to rely on a note-taker, CART or interpreter as a go-between for the professor’s oral lecture. The access to the oral information is different for a hard-of-hearing student and the printed material becomes even more critical. For this reason, it is most important for me to be comfortable with Faith’s reading comprehension before considering returning her to a more traditional educational environment.
When two homeschool moms meet for the first time, one of the most common topics of discussion is often instructional styles and curriculum choices. As a former school teacher myself, I tend to be more of a “school-at-home” type, but that is not to say it is the only way, or even the best way. Because of that, I tend to choose curriculum that are more like traditional classroom counter parts for core subjects, but I try to get a little more creative in electives and supplemental activities. As far as reading instruction, we have found the most success in blending a very traditional phonics program with a whole language program developed for children who are deaf and hard of hearing called “Reading Milestones”. The added bonus is that the school district purchased the whole language program for us to use since it was disability specific and therefore could be included as part of her IEP. We have also utilized a program called “Wordly Wise 3000” which, at the kindergarten and first grade levels, is a vocabulary program that focuses on expanding oral vocabulary; although written for traditional classroom use, the visual emphasis and inclusion of things like idioms and multiple meaning words make this program especially beneficial for a child with hearing loss that needs intentional and systematic input of the nuances of language. Plus, the stories are entertaining enough that Faith begs to do “story time”, which is what we call her vocabulary work, and I use it as an incentive for her to finish other, less exciting assignments.
While we have had much success homeschooling, it has not been without some frustrations as well. Since many of the companies that produce homeschool specific products are small, family businesses, many of the multi-media materials and DVD’s are not captioned. Many of the distance learning opportunities available to other families are not a fit for us because of the dependence on online instruction, again without captions. Several curricula, including our current choice for history, have highly recommended audio files available, but our family can not benefit from listening to a history lesson in the car. There is one science curriculum that I completely ruled out because a large component of the instruction was on CD’s and texts of those lessons were not available. Although there is less diversity in many of the curriculum choices, Faith was delighted to spot an illustration of a little boy wearing a bright red hearing aid in one of her math texts!
I do not know how long our family will choose to educate our children at home. My hope is to continue long enough to ensure that Ella gets a good reading foundation, and since she just recently turned three, we have a few more years to meet that goal. I can say I am no longer “reluctant” in my role as a homeschool mom; I have embraced it and truly enjoy being teacher in addition to mother to my children. I won’t pretend there aren’t difficult days, introducing long division recently to Foster comes to mind, but for now the pros outweigh the cons for the Wylie family. I will also say that I do not think homeschooling is the best path for every child, nor every parent. Although the motto of Hands & Voices is usually thought of in terms of communication modalities, I think it certainly applies to educational choices as well, both within the realm of homeschooling and when choosing between public school, private school, or home school. Remember, what works for your child is what makes the choice right!