Working with Families

Author: Katharine Edwards, M.A.T., Trinity University

For teachers working with students who are deaf or hard of hearing, knowledge of specific teaching strategies is important when promoting a healthy learning environment; however, schools must also focus on the families and cultures of individual students.  This not only helps students make connections, but it also opens the doors for parents to become involved in their child’s education. 

Baker and Baker (1997) affirmed in their article “Educating Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: Bilingual-Bicultural Education” that in the United States, over ninety percent of children who are Deaf or hard of hearing are born into hearing families (p. 2).  This can be difficult for the hearing parents because they may not be accustomed to interacting with children who are hard of hearing or deaf.  Suddenly, parents are not only looking at the general concerns when raising a child.  In addition, they must also address subjects such as different forms of communication, medical issues, effective and available resources and support, and the influence of the Deaf culture in their child’s life.  Schools and professionals thus become integral parts of families’ lives by providing support and resources for the family.

This chapter will discuss the Deaf community's concerns regarding children who are Deaf or hearing impaired.  It will also look at issues regarding cross-cultural interactions and strategies for teachers working with both students and families.  Family interaction and support in education plays a significant role in the success of students; thus different strategies to engage families in their child’s education will also be addressed.

Concerns of the Deaf Community

Author: Katharine Edwards, M.A.T., Trinity University

To truly understand the Deaf community’s position in working with children who are hard of hearing or Deaf, you must understand the dynamics of the Deaf culture.  Deaf with a lowercase “d” refers to persons who are hard of hearing and who often “use speech and residual hearing to communicate instead of sign language” (Frasu, 2004, deaf section, bullet 2).  Deaf with a capital “D” refers to the culture with which certain individuals who are hard of hearing or deaf identify and of which they consider themselves members. 

In their essay “Educating Children Who are Hard of Hearing: Residential Life, ASL, and Deaf Culture,” Gilliam and Easterbrooks (1997) describe the Deaf culture as “…a group of individuals who have a common heritage (historical events, famous figures, art, literature, and scholarly organizations), a common language (American Sign Language [or other forms of sign language]), and a set of customs and values (cherishing Deaf children, expecting participation in cultural events, valuing the visual world, protecting one another)" (p. 2).  Although hearing impairments and deafness are low-incidence disabilities, a powerful culture has grown from their shared experiences and common language.  Deaf culture organizations can be found at regional, state, and national levels and provide a wide variety of experiences such as athletic events, community picnics, theatrical performances, Deaf religious congregations, and even a Deaf Miss America pageant that bring individuals in the Deaf community together (Orsi, 2001). 

People within the Deaf community do not view the absence of hearing as a disability.  Instead it is considered a difference—something that sets their culture apart from others and makes it stronger. “They are proud to be Deaf and feel that Deafness is a vital part of their identity, cherished as much as ethnicity, gender, and religious background” (Frasu, 2001, Deaf section, bullet 2).  Children with hearing parents do not have access to this culture unless they have contact with Deaf individuals in the community; however, children who are deaf or hearing impaired must use sign language to be incorporated into the Deaf community.  Baker and Baker (1997) suggest that “This membership is vital to Deaf children because it promotes a healthy view of who they are as human beings and increases self-esteem and confidence in their abilities to interact in a wide array of situations” (p. 3).

Members of the Deaf community believe that to fully integrate a child into the Deaf culture, there must be strong contacts within the Deaf community.  To attain and develop those contacts, members of the Deaf community suggest residential life schools (Marschark, Lang, & Albertini, 2002).  These schools help pass on the beliefs and history of the Deaf culture from generation to generation.  Students receive direct experiences with sign language and are shown how it is incorporated into every day life. Gilliam and Easterbrooks (1997) believe that residential schools place students “…on equal footing with their peers [where] communication is not a barrier to social life because students do not have to depend on an interpreter, enabling them to express themselves freely to their peers” (p. 2).   Deaf adults who have studied at a residential school find their experiences valuable and essential to their identification as a member of the Deaf culture.

As parents, it can be difficult to choose whether or not to send your child to a residential life school.  Deaf parents with children who are deaf or hard of hearing often opt to send their children to residential life schools because they believe this is a valuable “opportunity for their children to participate in the life of the Deaf community and culture.”  Yet, “…separation may cause feelings of guilt in the parents, confusion and homesickness in the child, and depression in both; but once the child has adjusted, he usually embraces the experience wholeheartedly” ((Gilliam & Easterbrooks, 1997, p. 3).  On the other hand, hearing parents have a more difficult time settling on a residential life school as the best placement for their child.  Most often their preference is for the child to share the oral world with family and friends.  Whether Deaf or hearing, most are hesitant to send their child away because of the impact of separation.  Although residential schools are a powerful tool for educating and integrating children into the Deaf culture, placement is still a difficult decision to make as a parent.

One of the main debates throughout Deaf history and one that parents must immediately address is the issue of language or the means of communication.  “While some endorse sign language as the natural method of communication and education for the deaf, others believe that deaf people should learn spoken and written language so they can be mainstreamed with the rest of society” (Public Broadcasting System, 2001, Deaf Culture/Deaf History section).  Parents must choose which form/s of communication (Sign Language, Auditory-Verbal, Cued Speech, Oral, or a combination of several tactics) they will teach their child.  Once they find a means of communication that works, they must practice and become fluent within the home and school.  If parents choose not to use sign language in the home, their child might not become fluent.  Without sign language, the child may be excluded from the Deaf culture (Gilliam & Easterbrooks, 1997, p. 3).  The parents’ decision then becomes more than a language issue, but a cultural issue as well.

With technological advances in medicine, other issues arise within the Deaf community.  Used to enhance hearing, cochlear implants have become a major subject of debate.  Many people within the Deaf culture do not agree with the use of cochlear implants and at times reject individuals who have them (Public Broadcasting System, 2001).  However, this technology has amazing capabilities that allow many people to hear things for the first time.  Although many in the Deaf culture discourage the procedure, some parents feel that the cochlear implant is the best solution for their child’s needs (Public Broadcasting System, 2001). 


Cross-cultural and Diversity Considerations

Author: Katharine Edwards, M.A.T., Trinity University

A survey from The Center for Assessment and Demographic Studies’ at Gallaudet College indicated that approximately 40 percent of youngsters in programs for deaf students were from racial, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds that differed from the majority white, English-speaking culture” (Sass-Lehrer, Gerner de Garcia, & Rovins, 1997, p. 1).  These students not only attend to the challenges of being hard of hearing, they also address concerns and norms within their own ethnic background, the Deaf community, and the general community.  Statistics on deaf children failed to note that African-American and Hispanic children who were hard of hearing or deaf fell behind in academics compared to their Caucasian counterparts (Sass-Lehrer, et al., 1997, p. 2).  Authors such as Janice Hale (author of Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles) suggest that individuals from different cultural groups learn, communicate, and interact in different ways.  Teachers must be aware of these differences so they can incorporate them into the classroom, making the learning experiences stronger for all students.

Children who are hard of hearing or deaf may have a difficult time picking up on various cultural aspects and “acquiring a complete understanding of the accepted values, traditions and behaviors of the cultures into which they were born” (Sass-Lehrer, et al., 1997, p. 2).  Because of this, it is imperative for teachers and schools to incorporate different styles of learning and knowledge of diverse cultures into the classroom and school communities.  There is a large amount of literature addressing multicultural issues in education of which teachers and administrators should take advantage.  These resources can show schools how to incorporate cultures into classrooms and curricula to help modify teaching strategies allowing students to make strong connections and insights.  Teachers should also keep in mind that all students will benefit from these strategies.

Not only does this knowledge of various cultures help students within the classroom, but it also affects them indirectly through parent-teacher contact.  Schools must help support families with children who are hard of hearing or deaf.  Yet when there are communication barriers between the school and family members, complications develop.  Sass-Lehrer et al. (1997) state that “barriers to providing families with information and services arise when professionals and school programs respond inadequately to cultural or linguistic differences” (p. 4).

One key element in school to home communication is language awareness.  If the main language at home differs from that at school, parents may find it difficult to understand the school’s needs and requests.  In turn, school may not correctly interpret the needs of the family.  Teachers and schools can resolve this issue by providing translated texts such as letters home, announcements, and newsletters.  Through this extended effort, schools are showing that they care about parental involvement and want to help all families be part of their child’s education.  This also empowers parents by giving them control rather than relying on others (possibly their children) to translate information for them.  

One of the main goals when incorporating cultural awareness into the classroom is for all students to appreciate diversity and develop an understanding of the needs of others.  An atmosphere of comfort and acceptance must be established within the classroom and school to initiate exploration and creativity.  This will encourage students to participate more, both academically and personally.

The curriculum in a culturally-aware classroom should incorporate various aspects of all cultures into the students’ learning.  Sass-Lehrer et al. (1997) suggest that teachers should not only discuss several main figures from different cultures; they should, “…integrate [a] study of the languages, history, customs, and perspective of different peoples” (p. 6), allowing students to attain a true understanding of the different cultures.  This can also be applied even further within the curriculum by evaluating certain events throughout history and looking at them from different cultural perspectives. Teachers should immerse themselves and their students in different cultures, creating an atmosphere of accepted diversity and exploration, including such areas as art, music, food, history, and holiday celebrations.

Students should be active learners within the classroom, making connections and applying them to everyday life.  It would also be beneficial for teachers to involve students in the decision-making process by having the students decide on different issues that interest them.  Students might make suggestions to the larger class for group projects, then selecting which ones they might enjoy exploring.  Or, with teacher support, individual students might select areas of interest to explore independently, later sharing with the class.  Instead of the teacher delivering information to the students, teachers might create projects where the students are doing their own discovering and researching what interests them (Waldron, 2005). 

As a functioning institution within the community, schools should help students see the important roles they as individuals play within their community as well.  Projects can branch out further than classroom walls to affect the community.  Students can participate in jobs or volunteer opportunities such as visiting nursing homes, mentoring programs for younger students, cleaning up the environment, or helping different community based companies. 

Teachers might also invite members of the community into the school and classroom to serve both as role models and as a means of demonstrating adult interest in education and encouraging the exploration and acceptance of diversity.  It is important to include individuals with hearing impairments into the classroom to explore areas of interest and concern.  While at times, it will be important to explore deafness and the Deaf culture, this should not be the only focus of invited speakers.  It is not necessary for adults to focus solely on hearing loss during their interactions with students.  They should be invited to explore hobbies and professional interests as naturally as do hearing guests to the school.  Creativity and excitement over shared experiences will create a greater acceptance of diversity than will a focus on sensory differences (Waldron, 2005).

Utilizing these strategies, educators can appeal to not only the ethnic differences within the classroom but also to other populations such as the Deaf community.  Students and families begin to feel empowered and the relationships between school and home are strengthened.


Strategies for Successfully Engaging Families

Author: Katharine Edwards, M.A.T., Trinity University

Parental involvement in a child's education indicates the importance placed on learning and provides a role model for the development of the student's own attitude (Elkind, 2001).  Marschark et al. (2002) noted that while parents of deaf children indicated more frequent observations of their children in the classroom than did those of parents of hearing children, they volunteered less often to participate in classroom activities.  Yet, parents stated that they recognized the importance of such involvement in their child's success.  Authors suggest that parents may hesitate because of feelings of helplessness, lack of confidence in their own communication skills, and concerns about intruding upon the expertise of teachers.

In this handbook, in her chapter on counseling students with hearing impairment, Dr. Terry Robertson discusses different strategies for counseling parents of children with hearing impairments.  These suggestions can also be used when creating a program within the school to get parents involved.  Providing assistance such as counseling or support groups enhances parent involvement through empowerment.  These support groups consist of parents of children who are deaf or have a hearing impairment.  A parent contact, usually a parent who has already experienced the different stages of acceptance and has participated in parent education training, can best support and advise parents.  Having a strong support group consisting of people who have experienced or are experiencing the same concerns can truly help the healing and empowering process. 

Implementing a support system helps parents become more open when discussing their child’s hearing impairment and in explaining medical subjects and assistive technology.  Parents are able to retain information better and begin asking questions that will help them fulfill their child's needs.

Schools can help implement these groups by providing meeting space.   Speakers can be brought in to discuss different subjects that relate to parents and to answer their questions.  Parent liaisons can also be appointed to help organize such events.  It is important that these group meetings provide both valid information and social support.  Along with regular meetings, social outings such as dinner or recreation (picnics, camping, bowling, etc.) can provide additional activities for families to enjoy.  In their Parent Education Resource Manual, Gallaudet College underscores that the programs should “provide ongoing activities that will foster the cognitive and affective growth” of the parents involved (p. 11).  To assist in structuring these groups, a curriculum can be developed to address appropriate responses to questions about common issues and such as puberty, sex, and drug education, to help parents support the full educational development of their child.  Main categories that parent programs address include family, education, government, partnerships, resources, advocacy, and special circumstances (i.e. adolescents, rural families, students with complex disabilities including hearing impairment).  With parental approval, involved adults might also develop a directory of families with children who are deaf or who have hearing impairments (Hallau, 2002). This will make it easier for families to reach out to others and provide or receive support.

Parent education should also be incorporated into a school program.  If parents see that the school is making an effort to help them, they will be more willing to attempt to help the school and classroom.  Parents should also be given a chance to learn more about medical or audiological terms regarding their child.  Schools can provide time in group settings to introduce these terms.  They can also provide resources such as pamphlets, books, contact information, and mentors which will be able to help parents find out more about their child’s special needs. 

Author of A Parents’ Program in a School for the Deaf, Paul Rotter, adds that parents must be provided with an, “understanding of normal child development with insight into the likenesses between deaf and hearing children" (p. 11).  While written decades ago, Rotter's (1969) words ring true today:

Parents of deaf children certainly require an early, accurate orientation to deafness, the long- as well as the short-term prognosis, an explanation of the limitations of deafness as well as the educational possibilities, and a generally positive developmental approach rather than overly heavy emphasis on the disability” (p. 11). 

Schools and specialists are trying to empower parents and encourage them to be a strong and educated advocate for their child.  While a variety of issues must be addressed, a focus on how parents and their children will reach positive goals should be a primary emphasis in a parent involvement program.  Parents must be exposed to a good selection of resources regarding not only child development but also, “hearing, hearing-aids, [cochlear implants], speech and language, auditory training, speech-reading, and educational and vocational programs” ( p. 21), and then taught how to understand and use these resources. 

Continuously, we observe that students become stronger and more active learners when their parents are involved in their learning in some way.  Realizing this, many schools find it beneficial to have a policy where parents can observe classrooms and discuss concerns as well as give positive feedback to the faculty.  A willingness to incorporate parental input demonstrates that the school values their participation and opinions and that these are integral parts of a functioning education.

Too often, fund-raising becomes the focus of family involvement.  Parents are best involved in other aspects of the school such as developing a parent newsletter which would discuss support dispersal of information, ongoing activities, available resources, and contact information.  Parents also are needed to tutor children, instruct small groups in review activities, help create materials, supervise in the lunchroom, and work in other areas suggested by the teacher (Waldron, 2005).  

Positive parental involvement can also extend further than helping within the schools.  Hallau (2002) notes that parents can encourage home visits for specialists, counselors, and teachers so they can understand family issues and observe more of the student’s specific needs.  Parents can also help organize school activities such as field days, chili cook-offs, picnics, multi-cultural festivals, and field trips.  Parent groups can work with the school to help develop after school programs and weekend workshops, such as sign language courses, that would appeal to parents and students.

 For optimal communication, teachers and the Principal should have email devoted to parent/school communication.  For those individuals who have access to a computer, this method of communication can be quick and efficient.  Teachers can also send home a communication log which discusses student activities and how each particular student is doing (Hallau, 2002).  They may send requests or invitations home as well.  Not only is this a good way to involve parents in education, it also a good communication device between parents and children.  Parents are able to see what their child has been doing in school and many times this log can be a conversation starter.  Parents can also use this log to write back to the teacher requesting more information or to discuss things the student has been doing at home.  Other means of communication can come through “school-wide newsletters, long-range calendars, daily summaries of the child’s day, and routine phone calls” (Hallau, 2002, p. 12). 

When developing a program that strives to get parents involved in their child’s education, schools and teachers must remember that the structure and spectrum of support and activities depends on the population of the school and community.  Schools in rural areas will have different resources and needs compared to schools in urban areas.  Money, food, child care, and transportation must be considered when starting a program (Hallau, 2002).  Access to these resources is important and will greatly affect parent participation and the outcomes of a program.  It would also be beneficial for schools to bring in adults who are deaf or have hearing impairments so that they may not only serve as role models for the students but can also act as resources for parents regarding experiences, the Deaf community, and technology (Hallau, 2002). 

Schools must look at the parents’ and students’ diverse needs and experiences before any kind of outreach is developed.  To assure that schools have met these needs, parents and students should be involved in the planning process.  Because they have helped develop their own program, this involvement also affords a sense of ownership and empowerment.

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  • Elkind, D.  (2001). The Hurried Child. New York:  Perseus Publishers
  • Frasu, A. (last updated 2004).  Which is Correct: Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing impaired?
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  • Gilliam, J. & S. Easterbrooks (1997).  Educating Children who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing: Residential Life, ASL, and Deaf Culture.  Reston, VA:  ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED414676)
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