Deaf Children - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

Deaf Children


Some 5,000 American families experience the birth of a deaf infant each year (Thompson et al., 2001). These children will experience the world differently than their hearing peers. Approximately 90 percent of deaf children have hearing parents with little or no previous experience with people who are deaf (Marschark, 1993). Most parents today are aware of and sensitive to the importance of the early years for language acquisition and cognitive, social, and emotional development. The diagnosis of a deaf child raises many questions about how the hearing loss will affect the child’s development and learning. Often parents cannot imagine what the future holds for their deaf child; they do not know how they will communicate with their child, how he or she will become part of the family, or how the family’s decisions and actions can support their child’s individual needs.

Today, the availability of newborn hearing-screening programs throughout the country has made possible the diagnosis of hearing loss within the first few months of a child’s life. This is a dramatic change and advantage from just a few years ago when a child’s hearing loss may not have been confirmed until the child was two years of age or so. Technology has also made significant improvements with the addition of high-powered digital hearing aids and cochlear implants. Families now have more options early on regarding amplification systems for their child; the decision about whether their child should have a cochlear implant or not is challenging within the family unit and extends even further when the controversy extends into the deaf community. This decision is usually made in the context of another question, and that is, what language and communication method is the family going to use with their child? Is it one that will rely on the visual system (American Sign Language or another sign language system) or on the auditory system (English or the family’s primary spoken language), or will they choose to do both and be a bilingual family?

Fortunately, early childhood education programs for deaf children and their families and knowledgeable professionals are available to support the family in their decision-making and provide them with the information and skills to communicate with their child and to adapt the linguistic and social environment to match their child’s attributes (Bodner-Johnson and Sass-Lehrer, 2003). Family-centered programming has become the cornerstone of the philosophy and practice of early education for deaf children. This has come about as the result of federal legislation; specifically, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EAHCA; Public Law 94-142) and the laws that have succeeded it (e.g., Public Law 105-17, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] of 1997) dramatically influenced the pattern and delivery of educational services for deaf children and their families in the United States. Also, new knowledge has emerged from data based research that supports reformulating guidelines for the development and provision of early childhood programs for deaf children. For example, children identified with a hearing loss and who enroll in a comprehensive early intervention program within the first six months of life have been reported to have significantly better language and communication outcomes than their peers identified at a later age (Apuzzo and Yoshinaga-Itano, 1995; Moeller, 2000; Robinshaw, 1997).

A number of principles and guidelines have been developed that offer a framework for designing and implementing early education programs for deaf children and their families. They are summarized below and presented as foundational characteristics of these programs whether families use an auditory/oral, sign language, or other communication approach to communicate with their deaf child.


Family Centered

The development of the young child can best be understood within an ecological (as outlined by Bronfenbrenner) and family social system (Minuchin, 1974) theoretical context. The ecological perspective locates individual behavior in its social context; the child develops within the family and the broader contexts of the community and school. Both child and context shape and accommodate to one another as they interact; development relies on the child’s ability to understand and shape their world and to communicate effectively with those in their environment. Family systems theory points out that interrelationships among family members, more so than individual members, are central to understanding the complexity and diversity of each family. This framework sets the stage for developing programs and practices that establish the well-being of the family as a priority goal and one integral to planning for the child who is deaf. A family- centered approach addresses the family’s strengths and concerns, is sensitive to family complexity and supports caregiving behavior that promotes the learning and development of the child (Shonkoff and Meisels, 2000).



Early childhood professionals who establish effective relationships with families, and join with them by demonstrating trust and understanding, can significantly enhance the family’s ability to boost the development of a child who is deaf (Kelly and Barnard, 1999). Collaboration emphasizes the parents’ role as decision maker with the early childhood professional and promotes the self-efficacy of the family. Family-professional partnerships facilitate family participation at all levels of the program. Families are able to make well-informed decisions when they have full access to complete and unbiased information; collaboration with families takes place in ways that are culturally appropriate and consistent with the family’s desires.


Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Contemporary interpretations of developmentally appropriate practice serve as a guide to programs to develop a philosophy and work with children who are deaf on the basis of what we know about child development and family, community and cultural values. The child’s individual learning and development patterns and the family’s complexities and perspectives are considered for program planning. Developmentally appropriate practice programs construct experiences for children to learn through play and welcoming environments that promote ample opportunities for play (Gestwicki, 1999). Developmentally appropriate practice applies also to how adults work together. Professionals working with parents benefit from understanding the principles of adult development and learning in their work with parents as well as with other professionals and members of the community who are involved in program provision.


Transdisciplinary, Integrated, and Comprehensive

For most deaf children, the focus of their early childhood program is on the acquisition of language and communication skills. American Sign Language falls on one side of the continuum, while the reliance on speech and hearing (an oral/auditory approach) falls on the opposite side of the continuum. In between the two are other communication options for the deaf, including: Cued Speech, Signed Exact English (SEE), Simultaneous Communication, and the Total Communication Philosophy. While communication and language is often a critical need area, professionals and parents involved in planning should be aware of the importance of a comprehensive and cohesive program, including transdisciplinary child assessments, appropriate consultative services and full implementation of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The IFSP is a process through which families and professionals identify a child’s needs and strengths and the family’s priorities and resources in order to develop a plan for services. Professionals from various fields, such as medicine, social work, speech and hearing, and mental health, as well as individuals from the child’s community (e.g., child development center staff, deaf adults) commit to working collaboratively as a team to achieve common goals for the child and family. For example, today the deaf community and deaf culture is recognized as an important resource to the family and to the deaf child throughout his/her lifetime. A comprehensive approach to service provision recognizes the complex developmental needs of the young deaf child and supports an integrated model that emphasizes strengthening all areas of development, (e.g., cognitive, social-emotional, motor, cultural as well as communication and language.)


Assessment Based

Early childhood assessment aims to acquire information and understanding in order to facilitate the deaf child’s development and learning within the family and community. Primary among the principles of assessment for infants and young children who are deaf—and for all children—are the following, which reflect a family-centered, transdisciplinary, play-based assessment model (TPBA) (Linder, 1993):

• An assessment that is developmental, transdisciplinary, holistic, and dynamic.

• The assessment should be flexible in structure to meet the needs of the child and family.

• It assesses developmental skills, as well as learning style, interaction patterns, and underlying developmental processes.

• Parents and various professionals from different disciplines observe the child together in a natural environment, where the child is encouraged to demonstrate skills through play.

• Results are used for the development of an individualized education program (IEP) or an individualized family services plan (IFSP) and become objectives and strategies for services provided by the early childhood program.

Parents have a key role and responsibility in working with professionals during the assessment process to provide information about their child’s development and learning and the family’s priorities and values.


Community-Based and Culturally Responsive

An individual family’s perspective regarding their child’s abilities, a family’s child-rearing practices, their relationships with professionals and their involvement in their child’s program are a reflection of the family’s particular values and beliefs and should be understood within the family’s cultural, ethnic, and linguistic contexts. When a program recognizes cultural diversity in the families they work with, it is more apt to offer greater choices and flexibility in the content as well as the delivery of services.

An individual family’s community is a wealth of potential support for the family; their personal social network (e.g., relatives, friends, fellow religious peers, neighbors) and the organizations and programs in their locality (e.g., child-care programs, parent education programs, colleges, various medical facilities) are all resources that parents and professionals can tap into for information, collegiality, and assistance for specific need areas, such as respite care. Identifying and locating these community services could be a shared goal for the professional and parents but should be guided by the parents who indicate the need for certain supports.


Using Sign Language with Deafand Hearing Children

Language development. An ongoing controversial topic that continues today is the best way to communicate and educate a deaf child. The most natural form of communication for a child with a hearing loss is one that relies on the visual system. In the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) has been studied by linguists and is recognized as a natural language that exhibits all the same features as spoken languages, using a modality other than speech (Valli and Lucas, 2000). It is recognized as the language of the deaf community in America and most of Canada. In the past it was often thought that a child who first learns sign language will lose the ability or motivation to learn to use speech as a way to communicate. On the contrary, deaf children—like all children—need to have a native language in order to provide a foundation to learn a second language. Once deaf children have a foundation and understanding of the “rules” of language in their native language, they more easily can pick-up a second language, whether it is in the spoken form or in the form of early literacy.

A practice gaining popularity today based on its success is the use of sign language to support language development with young hearing children. Research suggests that typical hearing children who are exposed to sign language (whether it is “baby signs” or ASL) are more apt to use signs at an early age rather than spoken language (Acredolo, Goodwyn, and Abrams, 2002). This is mainly attributed to the earlier development of hand muscles and hand, eye coordination before the development of the muscles that are used for speech. These children then tend to “drop” the sign when they begin to speak. This practice is also based on the concept that a child’s speech, which provides parents and caregivers with linguistic information to which they respond, is not always sufficiently clear and the opportunity for supporting the child with appropriate input may be lost. When sign language is used alone or simultaneously with speech, the child is able to use the sign expressively, parents understand the sign and communication is successful; causing less frustration on the part of both parent and child. Young children enjoy the action involved in the signing movements and for parents and children, the iconic nature of some signs makes learning the signs easier. For example, the sign “drink” is signed by holding an imaginary cup and drinking from it (

The use of sign language with hearing infants and toddlers with spoken language delays has also served as a successful strategy for supporting children’s transition to spoken language, although not necessarily for all children with language delays.


Early reading. Beyond early language development, parents and teachers are using sign language as part of a multisensory approach to teaching reading. Traditionally, we learn to read by seeing, hearing and saying the word. Because the motor ability required for speech production is more complex for the child than that required for the production of signs, sign language allows the child to feel the word in the action of making the sign. Thus, another sensory avenue (kinesthetic learning) is being used in the learning to read process. In addition, sign language provides teachers with a cost-free tool that does not require additional materials and, again, is enjoyable for the child (Hafer and Wilson, 1986).



Over the past three decades, legislative and social commitments, theoretical formulations and research on development, learning, and families have come together to support a system of early education program provision that today is most encouraging for children with disabilities and those at risk. For deaf children, the development and widespread availability of newborn hearing screening programs have led to identification of hearing loss at earlier ages—often in the first two months of life. This means that families are able to receive individualized information and support from knowledgeable professionals that matches the particular needs of their child at a crucial time in their child’s development. The recognition of ASL as a language and the importance of deaf culture have created new opportunities for deaf children and their families that can lead to bilingual and bicultural learning opportunities. Preschool placements after early intervention for the deaf varies by state, region, and city. In many communities, deaf children who use sign language as their primary means of communication are generally not “mainstreamed” into Head Start or public inclusion preschools because of their need for an interpreter. In most instances, deaf children whose primary communication method is sign language are in preschool settings with other deaf children where the primary language of all the students and teachers is ASL or another sign communication system. In this environment they are able to communicate directly with one another without the use of a third party (interpreter). In some cities, there are residential state schools for the deaf that have preschool programs that local children attend and/or families from outlying areas can choose to have their child bused to and from these schools from their hometowns. There are also other preschools options for the deaf that use a completely auditory-oral approach, or a cued speech approach, or a Total Communication approach. As deaf children become older more options for their educational placement become available depending on their location. In many instances, once children reach elementary school, they are mainstreamed with their hearing peers and placed in a typical classroom with an interpreter and/or assistive technology. There are many different methods and views as to the best way to educate deaf children, and children’s individual differences influence the success of any particular approach. Regardless of the method utilized, deaf children are visual learners and need to use their vision to compensate for their hearing loss. Earlier enrollment in a comprehensive and integrated early intervention program presents challenges to the education system to provide appropriate services to younger and younger children and to make sure that professionals have the knowledge and skills to work effectively with these children and their families.

Further Readings: Acredolo, L., S. Goodwyn, and D. Abrams (2002). Baby Signs. Chicago: NTC Publishing; Apuzzo, Mahrya L. and Christine Yoshinaga-Itano (1995). Early identification of infants with significant hearing loss and the Minnesota Child Development Inventory. Seminars in Hearing 16(2): 124-139; Bodner-Johnson, Barbara A., and Marilyn Sass-Lehrer, eds. (2003). The young deaf or hard of hearing child: A family-centered approach to early education. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes; Gestwicki, Carol (1999). Developmentally appropriate practice: Curriculum and development in early education. Albany, NY: Delmar; Hafer, J. C., and R. Wilson (1986). Signing for reading success. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press; Kelly, Jean F., and Katherine Barnard (1999). Parent education within a relationship focused model. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education 19(9),151-157; Linder, Toni W. (1993). Transdisciplinary play-based assessment; A functional approach to working with young children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes; Marschark, Marc (1993). Psychological development of deaf children. New York: Oxford University Press; Minuchin, Salvador (1974). Families and family therapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Moeller, Mary P. (2000). Early intervention and language development in children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Pediatrics 106(3), E43; Robinshaw, Helen M. (1997). Early intervention for hearing impairment: Differences in the timing of communicative and linguistic development. British Journal of Audiology 29, 315-344; Shonkoff, Jack P., and Samuel Meisels (2000). Handbook of early childhood intervention. New York: Cambridge University Press; Thompson, Diane C., Heather McPhillips, Robert L. Davis, Tracy A. Lieu, Charles J. Homer, and Mark Helfand (2001). Universal newborn hearing screening: Summary of evidence. Journal of the American Medical Association 286, 2000-2010; Valli, C., and Lucas, C. (2000). Linguistics of American Sign Language: An Introduction. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Barbara Bodner-Johnson and Michelle Banyai Walsh