Deaf parents of hearing children often feel their families' needs are overlooked by early years practitioners who fail to build strong communications between home and the setting, but there is much to be learned from the best of current practice.
There are no precise statistics for the number of deaf adults with hearing children but by extrapolating the figures from a Department of Health survey, Sabina Iqbal, founder and chair of Deaf Parenting UK, reckons there are 15,000-25,000 deaf parents with a dependant child in the UK.
She says the experience of her family is typical. 'We felt that it was vital for Samaira, our first child, to start nursery as early as ten months to aid her language development. We asked social services to assist us with funding but they refused, saying that Samaira was not a "child in need".
'We have had numerous enquiries to Deaf Parenting UK from parents complaining there were inconsistencies in local authorities' systems of classifying a "child in need".'
Communication is, of course, the main barrier at nursery. 'I have had stories from deaf parents frustrated that they were not able to participate in their children's education despite the Government's agenda on Every Child Matters and Every Parents Matters,' continues Ms Iqbal. 'Sometimes the nursery refuses to provide a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter for parents' evenings or the Christmas play.'
Early years settings currently working with deaf parents and their hearing children offer important insights into the needs of both groups.
CASE STUDY: JEROME
'Jerome's parents brought him to nursery because they wanted him to learn the spoken word,' says Alison Wood, manager of Bright Start Day Nursery, Selby.
'They made email contact and I invited them to visit. They don't speak - the mother lip reads and signs with the father, so I made sure I had her attention when I spoke and tried to keep my remarks clear and simple.
'Jerome started in October 2010 when he was just two. He had no speech and didn't really make any sounds. A baby learns to look at your mouth when you talk but we had to teach him that.
'His first day was awful as he had not got the sign language to understand his parents were coming back. You normally sing and rock a child to soothe him but lullabies meant nothing to him.
'It must have been deafening coming from a quiet house into the noise of a busy nursery. We kept smiling at him and telling him it would be OK. I gave his mum my private mobile telephone number so she could keep in touch through texts.
'A few months after he started, his mother emailed to say he had signed that he loved his key person, Sarah. 'He was already seeing the speech and language therapist and his needs have been assessed under CAF (Common Assessment Framework). We follow all the advice. We think he has made a great deal of progress but he is still behind other children. He says odd words and makes lots of sounds.
'We made him a nursery picture book so he and his parents can communicate about his day. We took photographs of each area of the nursery - the book corner, sand, water - and wrote a few lines about what the children do in each area. We made a photograph timetable so they can look at the book and the timetable together.
'We also made a book of all his friends. We got the permission their parents and took photos of each individual child doing something and wrote the child's name under each photo so that he can look at that with his parents.
'We have another book we are making with his family which is ongoing. His mum has emailed pictures of all of his family, his dog, bike and house and we have written captions such as "This is my house". And we keep adding to it.
'We also have a communication book which goes between home and nursery in which the staff write all that Jerome has done each day, what he has eaten and how he has been.
'He has the biggest smile. He speaks with his eyes and his smile. He loves it at nursery. He still doesn't like leaving his parents but after a couple of minutes he is fine.'
CASE STUDY: PURLEY NURSERY SCHOOL AND CHILDREN'S CENTRE
Families from across London attend a fortnightly stay-and-play group for deaf parents run at the Purley Nursery School and Children's Centre.
The group, which started in 2010, follows the EYFS. Its facilitator, Catherine Hancock, a family support worker, and community services manager Marie Risolino carefully plan activities for the individual children but say it differs from other stay-and-play sessions because the focus is more on parents meeting than the child-parent interaction.
'Parents travel quite long distances to attend,' says Catherine Hancock. 'They say they find hearing groups not as friendly or enjoyable because they feel isolated and cannot communicate readily with the other parents.
'Deaf parents have said that sometimes with hearing groups when parents find out they are deaf, they are treated almost as if they are stupid. Because they cannot hear it is almost as if they have no brain either.
'I communicate with the parents between sessions by email. All the children in the group are hearing at the moment and are familiar with BSL signs. Children sometimes will not sign, just like some children who have a second language but will speak only English and refuse to speak their home language.
'When the group started, the difference for me from our other stay-and-play sessions was the silence; it felt very strange at first. As children became more familiar with the surroundings they became more vocal. The children find they can speak and get a response freely. They can call to me from the other side of the room and I will hear them and reply.
'The parents are very good lip-readers and do speak and sign with me which helps my learning of BSL - I have taken BSL level 1. I have noticed that parents do sign more than speak now. The parents are very supportive but I can get tongue-tied with my fingers. We book an interpreter when there is something important to discuss.
'The parents value the group because it gives them the chance to meet and share information. They benefit from sharing experiences, chatting to other people, overhearing what's happening in other people's lives. In contrast it can be quite isolating at a hearing group. Deaf parents say they find it difficult to form lasting friendships with hearing parents.
'At sessions here they have shared information about issues such as breast feeding, birth stories, vaccinations, children's behaviour and children's language development. They have also attended a first-aid course.
'The families say for some of them the group is the only place where they meet other hearing children with deaf parents and it is very important for the children's sense of identity that they see there are other families like their own. It helps make them feel proud to be able to sign and it also helps their social, speech and language development.'
WORKING WITH DEAF PARENTS: EXPERT ADVICE
Founder and chair of Deaf Parenting UK, Sabina Iqbal
- It is essential to reassure parents and give feedback via a communication book and parents' evenings on whether their child's language is in line with their age
- Be sensitive if there is a concern about a child having language delay - for example, don't blame the parents but aim to address the problem through extra one-to-one support at nursery
- - Many deaf parents are unfamiliar with phonic sounds or the teaching of language so share information and tools to reinforce the child's development at home.
- Staff should have at least a basic knowledge of British Sign Language
- Speak clearly (not loudly)
- Before speaking think about positioning yourself in relation to light and the room layout so that your hands and lips are not in shadow
- Agree a method for gaining everyone's attention such as flashing the lights on and off
- Be aware that parents/children who are deaf use their hands to communicate which makes it challenging for them to interact with activities and speak at the same time
- Be aware that deaf parents communicate with their children in short bursts rather than with a running commentary through the child's play as the child needs to watch the signs
- Do not be afraid to ask a parent to repeat something or to sign more slowly
- Ask parents what they want from the group/how they see the group progressing/what will improve communication
- Remember everyone is an individual.
Deaf Parenting UK www.deafparent.org.uk