Establishing an Effective Inclusive Classroom

Authors: Laura Hemberger, M.A.T. and Kathryn Morrow, M.A.T. Trinity University

Effective classroom management begins with an effective teacher.  In order to foster a healthy classroom environment and prevent possible behavior problems, the teacher must have a clear understanding of the unique learning needs of those who are deaf or hearing impaired.  It is essential that the general educator take time to learn about hearing impairment and deafness, including current research and technologies.  In addition, the instructor should gather as much information as possible about the nature of the particular student’s hearing impairment and how it will affect academic and social needs in the classroom. 

A good place to start is by thoroughly reading through all school records, including educational and medical history.  School counselors, the student’s former teachers, special educators, specialists, audiologists, and other professionals who have interacted with the child may serve as valuable resources of information as well.  As soon as possible, it is best to set up a meeting with the student and parents.  Discussion might include the nature of the impairment, the student's predominant mode of communication, and any technological devices to be worn or used in your classroom.  The teacher might explore how to introduce the student to peers in the classroom.  Other students will be curious about hearing devices the child may use, so you might want to ask whether the student would be willing to show the class how to use the instrument and how it helps communication.  If possible, this should occur as the child is integrated into the classroom in order to insure a smooth transition for all. 

Classroom community has a considerable effect on both learning and behavior.  The general education teacher must intentionally foster a positive classroom environment for the student.  This begins with helping hearing students learn about hearing loss and deafness.  The teacher might invite a guest speaker or someone knowledgeable about hearing impairment to educate peers about the disability.  Students should have the opportunity to ask questions and to be introduced to any adaptations the child may use to aid communication, such as an FM system or an interpreter (Mullis & Otwell, 1998).  The importance of such education is that it breeds tolerance and a fuller understanding of individual diversity.  Teachers should require students to respect one another’s differences.  It is important  to employ a zero-tolerance teasing policy in your classroom to insure that no student will be isolated or ostracized for his or her uniqueness.

Strategies for Effective Communication

In addition to being educated about hearing impairment, all students in the classroom should be taught ways to effectively communicate and any modifications they can make to more fully include the student in classroom activities.  Often, hearing students call on the teacher for help when they have difficulty communicating with a student who is hearing impaired (Mullis & Otwell, 1998).  Below are some suggested strategies students can use to communicate:

  1. Always face the student whom you are addressing;
  2. Make sure you have the student’s attention before you start speaking;
  3. Do not speak too loudly or exaggerate lip movements for the student who is lip-reading;
  4. Repeat or rephrase the message if the student seems confused;
  5. Write down the message you are trying to communicate;
  6. Act out the message or use visual cues or symbols;
  7. Do not become frustrated, aggravated, or say “never mind” when communication is difficult;
  8. Look for activities where less talk is required, such as sports, computers, puzzles, or board games.

Because of inherent differences in communication, it is likely that there will be times in your classroom when a student with hearing loss will misinterpret orally-presented information or need to ask for extra clarification.   Make it clear to students that all questions are welcome, and students are encouraged to seek the help they need, both from you and from one another.  Many teachers prefer to set up a classroom "buddy" for a student with special learning needs.  While this approach may work well in your classroom, it is important to remember that no one student should be taking the sole responsibility of helping another.  Fostering a helping and collaborative environment for all students ensures that all will grow not only academically, but socially as well.

Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is a valuable way to engage all members of the learning community and promote meaningful social interaction as students work together to achieve a common goal.  Teachers of students with hearing impairments should utilize cooperative learning frequently to encourage communication.  The following are suggestions for organizing group work in the classroom:

  1. Keep groups small to prompt conversation and interaction;
  2. Seat students at round tables where all faces are visible (Oral Deaf Education Homepage, 2005);
  3. Make use of visual and/or tactile resources so that the child with hearing impairment can become more fully involved;
  4. Assign roles to group members so that each student will have the chance to participate.  You may want to practice using these roles before expecting students to do so on their own;
  5. Reinforce positive interactions as they occur during group work time.

Establishing Expectations for Student Performance

Finally, students are very aware of their teacher’s expectations for them.  Part of creating a positive classroom environment is maintaining high, yet reasonable, expectations for all students, emphasizing  the belief that everyone can and will learn.  In the case of students with special needs such as hearing impairment, teachers must take care to apply the same standards as to the rest of the class.  This means not doing for students what they can do for themselves, as well as calling on students who are deaf or hearing impaired with the same frequency and in the same manner as hearing students.  If students believe that a teacher does not call on them or only directs simple questions to them, the message is that they are not capable of the intellectual work expected of the other students.  Such a belief about oneself may produce apathy or anger, manifested as behavioral problems (Mullis & Otwell, 1998; Oral Deaf Education Homepage, 2005).


Responding to Inappropriate Behaviors

Authors: Laura Hemberger, M.A.T. and Kathryn Morrow, M.A.T. Trinity University

There are several places a teacher should look in an attempt to explore the negative behavior of students with hearing impairment or deafness.  Many times, inappropriate student behavior results from a lack of understanding (Oral Deaf Education Homepage, 2005).  For example, a teacher may ask her students to gather in groups of four to work collaboratively on an assignment.  A Deaf student, having missed this instruction, may see peers moving from their desks and assume that the class period is over and students are preparing for lunch.  Thus, the teacher must be overly conscious that all directions and expectations are explicitly communicated in a way that the student will be able to understand.  Teachers should consider the following strategies to make sure all students are aware of what is going on around them:

  1. Make eye-contact and be sure you have the student’s attention before important directions are given;
  2. Use visual cues, such as calendars, symbols, or drawings of frequent activities, as much as possible;
  3. Use written words (on the chalkboard, a hand-written note, charts of procedures);
  4. Use gestures and pointing to indicate importance;
  5. Use extended wait time.  Hearing teachers may tend to present verbal and visual stimuli simultaneously.  However, a student with hearing loss needs time to absorb visual information before attending to the verbal message, whether received by lip-reading or through an interpreter;
  6. Post the daily schedule and any changes in a highly visible place;
  7. If the student communicates predominantly through the use of ASL, learn signs for frequently used words and for emergencies, such as “fire drill.”

Some students, especially adolescents, may engage in negative behaviors as a means of coping with insecurities about their hearing loss.  Being perceived as difficult to talk to or understand can have negative social consequences with other students.  Below is a list of nonproductive strategies cited by Pakulski and Kaderavek (2002) in their article on classroom interventions for students with hearing loss:

  1. Pretending to understand rather than asking for help;
  2. Withdrawing socially to avoid communication difficulties;
  3. Dominating conversations to maintain an understood topic;
  4. Giving in to feelings of anger, hostility, or self-pity;
  5. Feeling anxious and tense, before, during and after conversations.

These negative reactions must be minimized as much as possible.  Earlier suggestions for developing a positive classroom environment should address some of the social needs of students with hearing impairment.  However, if social difficulties seem severe or the student seems to be overly depressed, he or she should be referred to a counselor for further assistance.  (Please see the chapter Counseling Students with Hearing Impairment on this web site.)

If social needs in the classroom are not adequately addressed, isolation may be the cause of negative behavior among students with hearing impairments.  Because so much of social interaction involves listening, Deaf students may frequently feel isolated from their hearing peers.   Charles, Senter, and Barr (1995) note that all students have an innate desire to be part of the group and that misbehavior reflects the mistaken idea that such activity will gain students the recognition they want and are otherwise not receiving.  Suggestions for helping students with hearing impairment learn to communicate in a more positive way appear below, in the section entitled Helping Students to Communicate.


Respecting the Deaf Community

Authors: Laura Hemberger, M.A.T. and Kathryn Morrow, M.A.T. Trinity University

While issues of communication may be the root of many behavior problems for students with hearing loss, it is important for teachers to look critically at the specific behaviors of the child.  Some behaviors are not an attempt at gaining attention, a manifestation of lack of understanding, or oppositional in any way.  Instead, they emerge from the cultural differences between the Deaf and hearing communities.  Deafness has a unique culture with its own social norms.  Depending on the student’s level of involvement in the Deaf community, some of the behaviors you see may be reflections of these social norms.  This is especially true of students whose native language is American Sign Language (ASL), one of the key characteristics of a member of the Deaf community.  Listed below are some social norms among the Deaf, as well as suggestions for interactions, as discussed by Humphrey and Alcorn (2001):

  1. The hands are extremely important for communication in the Deaf community.  NEVER touch or hold the hands of a Deaf student who uses ASL to communicate.  This is the equivalent of placing your hand over the mouth of a speaking child;
  2. Prolonged, sustained eye-contact is a key to communication among the Deaf.  It is considered rude (not to mention difficult for those with hearing impairment) to carry on a conversation while doing something else.  Averting eye-contact communicates disinterest or boredom.  Be aware that this kind of frequent and sustained eye contact may feel uncomfortable to the teacher and mainstream students, but the Deaf student is acting within the norms of his or her own culture;
  3. Connecting to the group is an important social norm among the Deaf.  Activities in the Deaf community often start twenty to forty minutes after the given starting time in order to allow all members the chance for a brief social interchange with each individual.  This norm applies to leave-taking as well.  In the classroom, this may affect a Deaf student’s ability to make the adjustment from home to school each morning, transitions throughout the day, and leaving school to go home at the end of the day.  Make sure the Deaf student is aware of the daily schedule and knows when to expect transitions.
  4. Because of its highly visible nature, ASL is a very public language.  There is no way to “whisper” in sign language—anyone present who knows ASL will understand what is being said.  Thus, ideas about privacy are different in the Deaf community.  Deaf individuals may tend to ask personal questions and share personal information readily.  Very few topics are considered inappropriate for discussion.  Understand that a Deaf student who engages in these behaviors is not trying to be rude, but is communicating in an acceptable manner.
  5. While the visible display of emotions is frequently discouraged in mainstream hearing culture of the United States, it is a critical component for communication among the Deaf.  Because Deaf individuals usually cannot communicate emotions through tone of voice or volume, there may be a perception of strong emotions or easy agitation because of a more intense physical display of feelings.  This is important both in interpreting the physical communication of a Deaf child and in considering your own body language and expressive communication. 
  6. Because the culture is based on visual rather than auditory signals, attention-getting in the Deaf community is also highly visual and tactile.  A Deaf student may physically tap another person or use arm-waving as a means of getting the attention of a person or group of people.  This behavior may be interpreted as being pushy or aggressive.  Be sure to teach Deaf students directly how to seek attention, both from you and from other students in the classroom.  Establish a method for acknowledging the students' request for attention and letting them know when you will be available to help.

As with any cultural diversity in the classroom, it is important for you to respect the student’s own unique way of communicating while simultaneously teaching skills for communicating effectively with mainstream society.

It is important for teachers to be aware that although hearing impairments and deafness can have an effect on behavior and academic achievement, the student may have additional areas of special need that are not a result of the hearing impairment or the social norms of the Deaf culture.  Concurrent learning disabilities and emotional/ behavioral disabilities are often associated with hearing impairment (Mullis and Otwell, 1998); yet, the learning traits exhibited by these students are different from those of students with hearing impairments in general.  Thus, it is important that teachers watch for signs of coexisting learning and behavioral problems that may require a referral for additional services.

Helping Students Express Their Needs

Authors: Laura Hemberger, M.A.T. and Kathryn Morrow, M.A.T. Trinity University

Students with hearing impairment must learn to be their own best advocate in order to succeed.  As a teacher of a student with hearing loss, you can teach the child to be assertive in making certain that unique communication needs are met.  Especially as students grow older, they should take responsibility for their own learning and communication (Pakulski & Kaderavek, 2002).  Teaching the following skills to students with hearing impairment will help develop effective membership in the learning community and self-monitoring of personal behavior:

  1. The student should choose the best seating in the classroom by considering distance from the teacher, lighting, and other environmental factors or distractions (Pakulski & Kaderavek, 2002);
  2. Older students should be taught how to work assistive technology, such as an FM system, and should be responsible for using it appropriately (Pakulski & Kaderavek, 2002).  (Please see the chapter on Technology on this web site.);
  3. Teachers might suggest ways of informing classmates and others of hearing loss and related communication needs, such as asking them to speak more slowly and distinctly, not cover their faces, or to look at the student when they speak (Oral Deaf Education Homepage, 2005);
  4. Students need to practice strategies for verifying unclear information.  Rather than asking broad questions (e.g., “Could you say that again?”) to which the person will likely respond by repeating a lengthy message, students should learn to request only the information missed from the conversation, such as “What pages are we supposed to read?” (Pakulski and Kaderavek, 2002).
  5. Teachers might have students practice turn-taking, where one person speaks while the other listens and then the roles reverse.  The turn-taking technique allows a child to discover that behavior can be used as a means of communicating with others.
  6. It is important to instruct students on appropriate ways to communicate their feelings.  In her 2000 study, María Suárez found that students with hearing impairments may lack emotional vocabulary, the meaning of consequences due to behavior, and ways to communicate their feelings.  (Please see Appendix A in the Teaching Activities section below for suggestions on developing emotional literacy.)

Redirecting Inappropriate Behaviors

Authors: Laura Hemberger, M.A.T. and Kathryn Morrow, M.A.T. Trinity University

Even with preventative structures and strategies in place, it is likely that students will occasionally engage in off-task or otherwise inappropriate behavior.  Below is a list of suggestions for teachers to use in the event of inappropriate student behaviors:

  1. Take a moment to check in with the student privately.  Perhaps there are issues about which you are unaware.  Has the student had a bad day?  Is some piece of assistive technology not functioning properly?  Are other health issues affecting the student?
  2. Explain appropriate behaviors ahead of time for any new or unfamiliar tasks or transitions and have the student echo those expectations back to you to check for understanding.
  3. Use intentional facial responses to indicate inappropriate or off-task behavior.  Deaf students are very tuned into visual cues, so a look of disapproval can go a long way.  However, it is important to remember that this method of redirection is only effective once you have the student’s attention.
  4. Use a redirection signal with the student.  This may be a word or phrase in ASL or a made-up signal agreed upon by teacher and student.
  5. Use proximity control, as described by Redl and Wattenberg (Charles, Senter, and Barr, 1995).  When student fails to respond to the above signals, move closer to communicate that you are aware of a problem and would like to help redirect behavior.
  6.  If proximity control does not result in the desired effect, you may need to place a hand on the student’s desk, lightly tap the child on the shoulder, or wave one hand. (Reserve the waving of both hands for emergency situations only) (Mullis & Otwell, 1998).
  7. While you may want to use Canter's broken-record technique (Charles, Senter, and Barr, 1995) of repeating your statement several times, be aware that you might need to rephrase your request rather than using the same words over and over, in order to insure that the student understands what you are saying.  In this case, make sure to use concise, directive phrases.
  8. To reinforce positive classroom participation and work completion, use reinforcers of various kinds after the behavior is observed:
    1. Non-verbal social reinforcers—a smile, gesture, nod, wink, thumbs up, a light touch or pat, "high five" ;
    2. Graphic reinforcers—stickers or stamps on a chart, any marks that indicate a positive achievement for the child (more effective for younger children).  These reinforcers can be collected to earn larger rewards over time;
    3. Activity reinforcers—any activity the student prefers. These reinforcers work well for students of all ages;
    4. Tangible reinforcers—real objects students can earn as a reward for desired behavior.  Food items such as popcorn or raisins, school supplies, books, or inexpensive toys or games (Charles, Senter, and Barr (1995).
  9. Talk with parents about the behavior management strategies employed at home and whether a home-school behavior contract might be effective for the child.

We must never forget that the student is a child first and an individual with hearing impairment second.  Behaviors at school may be frustrating, confusing, or difficult to manage, and it is in your best interest to work as a collaborative team with other professionals. A key component for any effective teacher is flexibility, a sense of humor, and the willingness to learn as you go.


Authors: Laura Hemberger, M.A.T. and Kathryn Morrow, M.A.T.

Improving Classroom Behaviors and Social Interactions 

Downloadable the Activity .pdf

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