What’s a Language Rich Environment and Why Does Your Child Need One?

Research shows that “parents with children with special needs are uniquely qualified to help one another cope with feelings of isolation, despair, and anxiety. These parents act as buffers and they provide much needed emotional, social, and practical support” (Kerr, SM and McIntosh JB).

So starting this month, I joined other parents with children who are deaf or hard of hearing in the state of Florida to help promote discussions about self-care, coping skills, and educational strategies, and advocacy. By fostering community and conversation, we hope to support one another along the journey as we raise children with hearing differences. Hosted by the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, these parent discussions will reframe the way we view our children who are deaf or hard of hearing. But more than that, I hope they help us reframe our lives. 

Photo by Jonas Svidras from StockSnap

Reframing strategies help parents see their circumstances with a fresh, positive perspective. Rather than operating from a lens of fear, scarcity, or limiting beliefs, we hope to engage in conversations that empower parents to embrace change and difference.

The Role of Deaf Mentors to Help You Reframe: Deaf Mentors are adults who are deaf and hard of hearing. Not only are they great language models, but they also can help expand your vision for your child. If you’re not part of the Deaf community, go online and read about professionals who are deaf and living fulfilled, abundant lives.

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs: Our beliefs determine our trajectory, and limiting beliefs set our sights too low, so rather than focusing on outcomes you don’t want, set your sights high and teach your children to do the same. Without limiting beliefs holding them back, a child with a hearing difference can achieve anything they set their hearts on.

Sometimes, parents have limiting beliefs about their deaf or hard of hearing child. They may read discouraging statistics about D/HH literacy, graduation rates, job opportunities or quality of life. I am not saying that the struggle isn’t real. The challenges and obstacles for deaf and hard of hearing children are part of the experience. But as a parent, your perspective (belief), is far more powerful and indicative of your child’s lived experience. Ignore the statistics and aim higher. What does any of this have to do with a language rich environment? Your perspective is the soil. And from healthy soil, language will flourish.

According to the Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Planck, whose work established the foundation for Quantum theory, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” This is about the power of your own perspective, the story you tell yourself about yourself, your world, and others. The fact is, our lives reflect what we believe.

When you have a child who is deaf, you think a lot about speech, voice, words, and their daily implications. One of things we ask parents with children who are newly identified as deaf or hard of hearing, is do you know the difference between speech and language?

Speech refers to sound patterns, words, articulation, and phonics. 

Language is the ability to express oneself and the ability to understand others. This can include speech, but it is not limited to verbal/auditory expression. Language can also be visual (American Sign Language), tactile (Braille), written, or non-verbal such as body-language. Language encompasses a broad spectrum of communication modalities.

Creating a language rich environment is thinking outside the box of spoken English. Consider symbols. Symbols like the cross, the American flag, and the Star of David all communicate complex concepts and emotions. Math is also a complex language. What about the concepts and emotions conveyed through music or dance? Egyptians used hieroglyphics and West Africans transmitted messages using talking drums. There are the dots and spaces of Morse Code and there is the binary two-digit language of computers using only zeros and ones. My point is, when we communicate with our children, we are not limited to spoken words. If your child isn’t receptive to speech right now, it doesn’t mean she will never speak. It simply means you should start with a different building block. Lay a foundation for language and communication using visual and tactile aids.    

A language rich environments includes nurturing, affection, expressions like the smile on your face, turn taking with a ball, eye contact, and gestures. By being intentional, you can create a home that fosters meaningful communication without ever uttering a sound.

Practical Strategies:

Use Visual Language: Research shows that sign language enhances early communication for both hearing and Deaf children. I can not emphasis this enough. American Sign Language was the key to my son’s language development. My favorite tools to learn baby signs were Signing Time Videos. My local library had the series for free. If your library doesn’t carry the series, you can request they order it.

A comprehensive summary of the academic research on the impact of signing on cognitive, linguistic and social-emotional development: Signing With Babies and Childre

Create a photo album with members of your family. Label each by name and review the names like a picture book each night. Remember that children need repetition for concepts and words to be remembered in long-term memory. Incorporate the signs for each photo such as mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, uncle, and aunt. Also include their first names as a label for each picture. Deaf children miss incidental information, so don’t take for granted that they know the first names of anyone in your family. These are lessons that must be intentionally taught.

Make an Emotions Chart: Teach your child to express his feelings in appropriate ways. He may not be able to say the word, angry, but rather than throw a tantrum, he could point to the chart to communicate with you.

Photo by Direct Media from StockSna

Play Games. Games like Twister are great for teaching colors and parts of the body. Kick a ball back and forth to teach turn taking. Card games like Uno are also great for numbers and colors.

Cooking together can teach words and concepts such as hot, cold, sour, sweet, fruit, berry, numbers, ice, and eventually measurements. The opportunities for language lessons in the kitchen are endless and delicious.

Menus are another tool for pointing out words and pairing them with real world, meaningful concepts. Learn the signs for your child’s favorite food items. Then point out the words paired with your voice and the sign at every opportunity. By doing so, your child is learning three communication modalities simultaneously: Written English, ASL, spoken English.

One mom in our discussion group used menus in extremely creative ways. She made a Disney Princess menu so her daughter could pick out her morning hairstyle preference. She also used a breakfast menu so her daughter could communicate her preference between cereal, pancakes, or oatmeal. Keep it simple, with three or four choices.

Visual Charts are great for communicating daily schedules, and there are tons on Pinterest for you to download for free. This example is thanks to teachingmama.org

Narrate Your Day: As you go about your day, describe what you’re doing, how you feel, and what you are observing. Get in the habit of helping your child make auditory connections.

Drawing : If writing words is too advanced, encourage a daily drawing journal. Maybe you and your child can draw the highlight of the day. Or get Dr. Seuss’ “My Book About Me” and write it together.

Don’t worry, your child won’t point and gesture forever. Establishing clear communication without tantrums and frustration creates a nurturing environment that will foster more advanced language. It’s a stepping stone and a building block.

Additional Resources:

Visual Language and Visual Learning: An NSF Science of Learning Center

CHH Center for Hearing Health

Research-Based Information about American Sign Language and Bilingualism

Why I Sign

Works Cited:

Kerr, SM and McIntosh JB. Nursing and Midwifery School, University of Glasgow, Aug 6, 1999).

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