Introduction: Early Beginnings for Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

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By Marilyn Sass-Lehrer, PhD/February 2014

Early identification means young children who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families are getting an earlier start than ever before. Families with infants identified through a newborn hearing screening program and who receive appropriate early intervention are able to make the most of their infants' first months of life by providing an optimal environment for language, cognitive, and social-emotional development. Researchers have found that when a baby is identified early as deaf or hard of hearing and children and their families receive comprehensive intervention services by 1 year of age, many of these children achieve language skills that are close to those of their hearing peers by the time they are 5 years old (Moeller, 2000; Yoshinaga-Itano, 2006). Although many children who begin early intervention by the time they are 6 months old demonstrate age-appropriate outcomes through 7 years of age (Pipp-Siegel, Sedey, & Yoshinaga-Itano, 2002), levels of achievement vary with some children doing better than their peers and others not nearly as well. Outcomes vary and depend upon a number of factors (Yoshinaga-Itano, 2010). Overall, the benefits of early identification and early intervention have exceeded many people's expectations and have positively changed the outlook for children who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families. 

Early intervention specialists provide families with the information and support they need to maximize their child's overall development. Families, with guidance from professionals, select the services and resources that will benefit their children and families. Effective early intervention offers specialized programming by competent professionals that is provided in a manner that is compatible with the child's strengths and needs and the family's concerns and priorities. 
The widespread availability of newborn hearing screening programs in the United States means that almost all deaf and hard of hearing infants and toddlers now have opportunities that only a short time ago were not possible. The number of families with infants seeking early intervention services has increased dramatically over the past 10 years. This increase is the result of aggressive efforts to implement newborn hearing screening programs throughout the United States and many other countries. All 50 states have now established newborn hearing screening programs, and infants who are deaf or hard of hearing are likely to begin receiving early intervention services well before their first birthdays. 

Yet challenges remain. Although almost all infants receive hearing screenings, many infants do not receive timely and appropriate early intervention services (Shulman et al., 2010). This may be due to a variety of factors, including the lack of specialists who are able to evaluate an infant's hearing and professionals who have specialized knowledge and skills to work with infants who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families (Marge & Marge, 2005). Families seeking information and support often turn to the Internet where they can locate an abundance of information. Some families may find the information overwhelming and discover that it is often laced with conflicting advice and strong opinions. Families discover that it is not always easy to separate myths from facts. Several myths and facts are presented in this document along with recommendations for a strong start for young children who are deaf or hard of hearing and their families. 

About the Author

Marilyn Sass-Lehrer, Ph.D., is a professor of Education at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Sass-Lehrer is also the coordinator of the Family-Centered Early Education's graduate teacher preparation program at Gallaudet. Since 1984, Sass-Lehrer has specialized in preparing professionals to work with young children and their families and has worked with deaf and hard of hearing children and their families in a variety of program settings. Her research and writing address teacher competencies, diversity, family-school partnerships, early intervention, and support for families with deaf and hard of hearing children. Sass-Lehrer is involved in several professional organizations that advocate for programs and services for deaf and hard of hearing children and families. She has written this document for the Gallaudet University Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center.

How this Document is Organized:

About the Author Section
How Can You Use this Document?
Section 1: What is the Purpose of Early Intervention? 
Section 2: Myths and Facts About Early Identification and Early Intervention
Section 3: What to Look for in an Early Intervention Program

How Can You Use this Document?

After reading this document, the reader will understand:

  • how early intervention provides families with the support they need to utilize family, community, and specialized resources to enhance their child's development;
  • why early beginnings are so important for communication and language development and social and emotional well-being;
  • how family involvement makes a difference;
  • why no one approach works for all children;
  • what environments are most appropriate for early intervention; and
  • who should provide services to young children and their families.

The reader can use the information in this document to guide the development of early intervention services and advocate for the provision of services that are most appropriate for young children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

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