Inclusion: Create a deaf-friendly learning environment

Emma Fraser
Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A new early years toolkit from the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) contains a host of advice on creating an environment that supports deaf children to achieve their learning potential. Emma Fraser reports

Deaf babies and children do not have a learning disability. They have the same potential to develop and learn as any other child, given the right support from the start. Despite this, only 36 per cent ofdeaf children achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C in 2014, compared with 65 per cent of other children.

Three babies are born deaf in the UK every day. Half will be identified as deaf at just a few weeks old and most of them will be educated alongside their hearing classmates. Many deaf children lose their hearing in the first few years or experience temporary deafness such as glue ear. This comes at a time when they are learning all about life, how to communicate and forming key attachments and relationships.

Deafness can be mild, moderate, severe or profound. The impact of a mild hearing loss is often overlooked, but a young child with mild deafness, such as glue ear, can miss up to half of what their teacher is saying in a busy setting.


Early years practitioners play a key role in promoting and developing the foundations of language and it doesn't matter whether the deaf child speaks, signs or uses a combination of both. Knowing how to spot the signs of a hearing loss and making simple adaptations can make a big difference. Think about how you make your communication visual through your facial expressions, gestures, signs, or showing as well as speaking, and make sure the child can hear you by being close and reducing noise levels. This is sometimes called being deaf-aware or deaf-friendly.

Even once a child has been diagnosed, adaptations will continue to need to be made, as in the case of three-year-old Maya, as told by her key worker. ‘Maya became upset and wanted her hearing aids off after story times when she first came to nursery. Her parents couldn't understand as they said she likes stories. After lots of observation, I could see Maya had to concentrate really hard, and if she wasn't sure what the story was about, she became bothered. Now I will tell her about the story before all the children hear it and we also have story time much earlier.’

Many deaf children use hearing technology, such as hearing aids, but technology can't give a deaf child normal hearing. Finding out how their technology works, when to use it and how to use it is key to children who use their technology to access speech. Children are still learning about how to listen and are sensitive to noise, so you might also want to explore using a radio aid or another device that can help overcome this problem. Being deaf-aware is just as important whether the child uses hearing technology or not.

The parent of four-year-old Jayce found that the shock of the noise of the environment was too much for her son to adjust to at first. She says, ‘Jayce was always happy to put on his cochlear implants in the morning at home, but by the time his key worker was involving him in an activity, they were nowhere to be seen. It soon became clear that it was when Jayce went into the main pre-school room that he pulled them off. His teacher of the deaf worked with the staff to find ways to improve the acoustics in that room. He keeps them in now.’

Emma Fraser is teacher of the deaf at the NDCS

Creating a deaf-friendly learning environment

  • Many deaf children use visual cues to communicate, so face children so they can see your expressions and lips.
  • Some also rely on their residual hearing and hearing technology. Take the time to find out from their family which communication methods work best.
  • Allow time for children to communicate. Show the child when you start to talk about something new, using objects and pictures. Repeat and explain what others say.
  • Communicate about things the child is interested in.
  • Think about noisy areas in your setting and use soft furnishings to reduce it.
  • Try to choose times when it is quieter to read stories or have chats.
  • Families tell us that their children are often exhausted by the end of the day. Think about how you organise your session so activities which involve lots of language and listening are at the beginning. Build in regular breaks and watch out for indicators of tiredness, frustration or withdrawal.
  • Repeat new information, include lots of visual and practical information, and take the time to check that the child understands.


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