A Conversation About Hearing Loss and Education with CHC’s Dana Selznick

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I don’t know what we would do without Dana Selznick in our lives. Dana, who currently serves as Education Specialist at the Center for Hearing and Communication, provides information and guidance so that parents can make informed decisions about their children’s hearing health care. She has helped us navigate Early Intervention (EI), the Committee on Preschool Education (CPSE), the Deaf Infant Program (DIP), and the private nursery school admissions process in New York City. She also co-founded Camped Up, an amazing camp for kids with hearing loss. Dana was gracious enough to talk to us about the work she does and about advocating for children with hearing loss in the classroom:

What are the most important factors parents should look for when choosing a school for their child with hearing loss?

First and foremost, every single child is different. What works for one child, might not work for another. This can be hard for parents to grasp. Parents read the same blogs. They talk to each other during group therapy. They compare their children to their friend’s kids. It’s natural to do so. But parents must remember: what works for one child will not necessarily work for their own.

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Dana has many fun ways of encouraging letter recognition. Recently she had Sonya create an “I Spy” jar, filled with rice and small letter beads. Once the jar is filled we can look for the letters, identifying their name and sound.

It’s important to Look for teachers who recognize a child with hearing loss needs accommodations BUT who also treats that child as any other in the classroom in terms of expectations for success. This is a tricky balance. Some schools are so focused on the accommodations and ensuring they have all of the things a student might need, they forget to push the student. They fail to challenge them. This is a major disservice to any child.

Also, pay attention to the school environment -in particular the acoustics. It’s an advantage when you walk into a classroom and see carpeting on the floor and stoppers on chairs, all of which help to lower sound level in the classroom. That said, this is something we can fix. I work closely with a number of schools in Manhattan and help to ensure their classrooms are in good shape from an acoustics stand point.

Now I will reiterate again the fact that every child is unique and has different needs, typically, I do find that schools with some structure to be beneficial to children with hearing loss. Some schools are free-play-based with little structure. Their philosophy is that as they child grows and develops, the child is encouraged to explore on their own and figure out who they are. For kids with hearing loss, however, we want schools that will work with a child’s speech therapist to pull and encourage language. To hold verbal communication above the importance of free play all day.

What kinds of questions should a parent ask when interviewing a school?

Parents should ask schools how they differentiate for their students. They can usually learn this by looking at the school’s philosophy. Schools that believe in an individualized education plan, that describe every child as an individual with their own unique needs, typically will adhere to a philosophy we can work with. When you are on a school tour, listen to how the admissions team talks about their school. Do they describe their kids as unique individuals? Pay attention to the art that hangs on the walls. Every child’s work is going to be different. How does the school reward that?

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What advice do you think is most important for parents when working with their kids’ teachers?

Start the year off by introducing your child and make their listening needs known to the teachers. Present your child’s teachers with your child’s hearing background. Make sure the teachers understand how to use any assistive listening devices needed such as an FM unit, and ensure that they know basic troubleshooting for equipment. Make sure the teachers feel comfortable using this equipment.

Provide teachers with a professional that they can speak to if they have any questions. Often, teachers don’t feel as comfortable asking questions to the parents as they would a professional.

Be involved in any way you can! Have ongoing meetings with your child’s teachers, beyond parent-teacher conference time. Ideally, you want to stay involved so that you are not just contacting the school when something goes wrong. Whether you are involved in the PTA, volunteer for class field trips or volunteer remotely via email (lots of schools have volunteer opportunities for working parents), you can connect with your child’s teachers in a more casual setting and can get a better sense of how your child is doing in the classroom. You need to trust your educators and your therapists, but when you are there first hand, you really will know what is going on and can contribute to your child’s IEP meeting in a more valuable way, which will benefit your child. Ultimately, by being involved you are ensuring that the school knows you, knows your child and brings you all together as a team.

Additionally, I would encourage parents to look at some fact sheets we developed to address this exact topic. They include:

Tips for Teachers of Children with Hearing Loss fact sheet

Tips for Teachers of Preschooler with Hearing Loss fact sheet

For people considering being a hearing loss education specialist, what advice would you give?

You can’t always have a plan. It will change minute to minute. I could be here sitting with a student and I can have a plan for how the whole activity is going to go and realize it is just not working and I need to pull something else out. This comes with experience. It is hard your first few years of teaching to always have something on the back burner to be able to do. But you will need it. Trust me.

Many teachers of the Deaf are itinerant teachers who go from school to school, working with different kids in mainstream classrooms. I did this for many years before working at CHC and I loved being able to connect to the students on a different level than their classroom teacher. That being said, it can also be a very difficult position. You have to be able to adapt to each school’s philosophy. To each child and to each family you are working with. You also have to keep in mind that you are the expert. You can walk into a classroom and the teacher has been teaching for 40 years, but they have never taught a child with hearing loss. You are the expert. You need to learn when to push back and when to pick your battles.

A significant part of your job is working with children who have hearing loss on literacy skills. Why is it so important that kids with hearing loss work on literacy skills early on?

I love literacy! A big piece of it is I grew up with learning disabilities. I had trouble learning to read. I didn’t start reading until second grade. My parents are often amused by the fact that I am now teaching three-year-olds to read because I wasn’t reading until quite late. I had a very difficult time with it. I believe this has helped me understand that every child learns differently and it is important to find the right strategy for each individual student. It’s a known fact that kids with hearing loss struggle more with reading than their hearing peers. I truly believe that early exposure to reading can only help. To be clear, we aren’t pushing them or grading them, we are simply exposing them. So when they start to hear letters and letter sounds in school later, it will not be the first time they are hearing it.

As an educator, I enjoy giving support to older children who needs remedial work, but if we can get them to read sooner and not feel that sense of struggle with reading, it’s so worth it. These kids have enough challenges on their plate, be it listening, dealing with background noise, explaining their hearing loss to their friends and teachers, why not give them a little foundation now so that they are confident? So that they will feel better in the classroom setting? That they won’t be nervous or embarrassed that they are pronouncing a letter sound wrong.

A bit verklempt now! I know what a difference this has already made to Sonya. She can be hesitant to try new activities, so giving her a foundation in reading early on I know will make a huge difference. 

Thank you, Dana, for sharing such incredible advice and insight!

P.s. I wrote about Sonya’s experience at Dana’s amazing Camped Up, a camp for kids with hearing loss here.

Dana’s colleague Liz Ying also recently shared her thoughts on speech therapy for kids with cochlear implants here.

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