The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

The social and emotional development of deaf children

by Susan Gregory

Social and emotional well-being is linked to a sense of self, to feelings about relationships with others and perceived feelings about treatment by other people. It is tied up with notions of what is considered normal or unusual behaviour. However, within education in general, more has written about educational processes and academic development than about well-being or social and emotional matters and this is no different in publications concerning the education of deaf children. Until recently the way in which deaf children develop socially and emotionally has received relatively little attention.

Much of the research that has been done is based on comparisons with hearing children and the implicit assumption that what is appropriate behaviour for hearing children is the same for deaf children. Other studies have used descriptions of the perceived inadequacies of deaf children to argue for a specific approach to language development e.g. the exclusive use of oral language. In addition, deaf children have also been used as a way of looking at the role of language in developing particular skills of hearing children such as studies of the theory of mind which are discussed in more detail later in this article.

In the 1960s, the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) expressed concern about the social adjustment of deaf children. In 1960, they submitted proposals to the Royal Medical Psychological Society’s working party on the psychiatric treatment of deaf children and adolescents, because of the perceived difficulty in treating disturbed deaf children and adolescents due to their communication problems. A conference set up by the NDCS in 1962 looked at the special needs of deaf children with emotional problems. The NDCS concluded ‘the interest aroused has stimulated the psychiatric profession to study this little-known field, and the benefits for deaf children will be reaped in the years to come’. Their view, supported by a publication of their Chair, Freddie Bloom, endorsed the priority of good communication for the deaf child; ‘The primary task of parents and one which they must never forget is to establish some method of communication with their child right from the beginning; it does not matter what form it is’.

Certainly, in the 1960s it was accepted that deaf children were likely to have problems. Ballantyne, in his book first published in 1960, endorsed the ideas of Michael Reed who emphasised that a child who is born deaf, or the child who has acquired deafness early in life, is subject to all the frustrations of the hearing child, but in addition to these is the further frustration of their inability to communicate with their friends and family by the quickest method possible – speech. ‘As long as his deafness goes unnoticed, his frustrations are exaggerated, and his temper tantrums worse. This can only be minimised by the early recognition of his handicap.’ (Ballantyne p217)

Ballantyne attributes this to non-acceptance of deafness by parents:

‘one of the greatest difficulties facing the parents of a deaf child is their acceptance of the handicap … Deafness be accepted. The task that lies ahead is often very great, but cannot be properly begun until one has succeeded in removing the enormous psychological barrier of non-acceptance.’ (Ballantyne p218)

Michael Lewis, too, was concerned about social and emotional development in deaf children which he termed ‘orectic’ development. Lewis uses orectic to mean emotions and intentions in contrast to cognitive development. In 1963, following on from his book ‘Language thought and personality in infancy and childhood’ (1963) which was concerned with hearing children, he published his book ‘Language and personality in deaf children’ (1968). In it he made a link between communication and good social and emotional development: ‘there are good grounds for believing that language exercises an important influence on orectic development – the growth of a child as a person, the organization and regulation of his emotional life, his relations with other people, and his advance towards ethical maturity’ (p67). While he believed that spoken language was the better option for the deaf child, he also asserted the main priority was communication, ‘What matters most is that there should be communication as early as possible – but communication whether linguistic or not’ (p31). He also considers the evidence from deaf children of deaf parents, which he believed showed that the signs used in this context favoured the development of communication to the benefit of the deaf child.

However, concerns about social and emotional development soon became dominated by discussions of the use of signs or ‘manual language’ in the development of the deaf child. The Ewings in their work focussed on the importance of deaf infants and children learning to speak as the basis for good mental health, ‘We have long been convinced from intimate knowledge of children’s subsequent careers that expert guidance to parents while their children are still young is the very best foundation for the development of healthy parent-child relationships, that can last on into adolescence and beyond. Through freedom of communication in spoken language, mutual understanding and mutual confidence develop (1964, p113-4). In their 1971 book ‘Hearing impaired children under five’ they explore the different needs of different children and describe a whole range of children with differing degrees of deafness and some with additional disabilities, yet they do not mention deaf children for whom developing spoken language is a problem. They say ‘we are not urging the acquisition of language just for its own sake … Put quite simply, it is the whole emotional and social life of the child.’(p131).

Many of the publications during the 1970s and 80s, a time when oralism was the dominant approach to education, linked perceived social and emotional difficulties of deaf children to difficulties in language. Good mental health was seen as dependent on good communication, and good communication was spoken language, the use of signs or ‘gestures’ being seen as restricting communication. It should be recognised that at this time, sign language was not recognised as a proper language and believed by some to be simply mime or gesture and detrimental to development.

The main publications on the education of deaf children of this period endorsed the importance of spoken language. Watson (1967) in his book ‘The education of hearing handicapped children’ wrote ‘This, of course, is a(nother) reason for the necessity of trying to develop (spoken) language as a means of communication early in life so that the right behaviour habits can be instilled as early as possible (page 192). Nolan and Tucker, some years later (1981), wrote that ‘Many parents tell us that what they want for their child is for him to fit into society, to be acceptable socially; and paramount in their minds is that he should talk. For the great majority of hearing impaired children this is possible given that they are provided with an environment where at the early stages the only form of communication is through spoken language’.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, reports of a more complex picture emerged, often from accounts by the parents themselves (Fletcher, L (1987) Language for Ben: a child’s right to sign. London Souvenir Press.) In 1970, the NDCS commissioned a study to look specifically at young deaf children and their families, focussing on their perceptions of family life and the young child’s social and emotional development. I was fortunate to be appointed to carry out this study, published in 1976 as ‘The deaf child and his family’ (re-issued in 1995 as ‘Deaf children and their families’). It was based on interviews with the families themselves.

In many areas of behaviour there were no problems, or a similar range of problems as there might be with any group of children. Mealtimes, toilet training, and demands for attention seemed to show the range of behaviours that might be expected of any child. One problem area, however, was that of sleep with many parents reporting difficulty in getting children to sleep, and of them waking frequently in the night. Also, in this study, temper tantrums were reported as a problem, just over half of deaf children having them frequently, and a further 13% once a week. Parents often attributed these to frustration. Compared with 4-year-old hearing children there was a difference as none had temper tantrums frequently and only a third once a week. However, it is worth noticing that tantrums decreased in both groups as they grew older, 70% of two to three-year-old deaf children having them once a week, reducing to 35% of five-year olds. The issues were clearly complex but not simply one of spoken language as two thirds of the mothers found it necessary or easier to use gestures to communicate, with six out of ten approving the use of gestures.

While for many years, deaf children had been perceived as having problems with their social and emotional development, in the 1980s and 90s there was an emerging focus on why this should be the case. The question arose as to whether this is due to intrinsic features of deafness, an inevitable consequence of childhood deafness, or because of the way deaf children are understood and treated. Among the issues considered was the distress that may be caused to hearing parents in having a deaf child and how this could change the relationship with the child. Also, an infant who is deaf may miss the reassurance of the mother’s voice when distressed during early infancy which may have consequences for emotional development. One further problem for the young deaf child is that of divided attention, that when they are playing or looking at books with an adult they have to look away from the book to the adult for information. This is independent of whether the adult signs or speaks. Understanding social situations and emotional experiences may depend on conversations within the family and beyond, and some families may find such conversations difficult.

The 1980s had also seen the emergence of studies of deaf children of deaf parents where it was found that deaf children often performed better on a whole range of tasks than deaf children of hearing parents, with positive consequences for their social and emotional development. Meadow, in summarising work in this area, suggests ‘deaf children tend to be less socially mature than hearing children (but) deaf children of deaf parents have been found to be relatively more mature than the deaf children of hearing parents with whom they were compared’ (1980). She also concludes though ‘that deaf children of deaf parents feel more positively about themselves than deaf children of hearing parents’. Such research challenged further the idea that spoken language in itself was necessary for healthy emotional and social development.

The comparison of deaf and hearing children has been used to look at certain aspects of hearing development and in one area it has interesting implications for our understanding of the social and emotional development of deaf children; this is the study of theories of mind. Theory of mind relates to the extent to which an individual can understand the perspective of another and understand that they may see the world differently. This is important for social and emotional understanding. A typical situation would be to ask a child to observe a situation with two toys. A monkey hides a sweet under a cloth and goes away. Another toy, a rabbit, moves the sweet to a different place and also goes away. The monkey returns and the child is asked where the monkey will look first for the sweet. To demonstrate a theory of mind in this situation he or she must realise that while the sweet is in the second hiding place, the monkey cannot know this and will look in the first one. Not realising this indicates an inability to take the perspective of another.

In an early study of theory of mind, Peterson and Siegal (1995) found that only 35% of deaf children (average age 10 years) were successful at this task while most hearing children were successful at four years of age. However, other studies of deaf children looking at their understanding of the desires and beliefs of another showed no problem with desires compared with hearing children although they did have difficulties with beliefs. Furthermore, deaf children of deaf parents did not have these problems.

It becomes clear that social and emotional development in deaf children is complex and bound up with a number of factors, including attitudes to the child’s deafness, approaches to language and communication, conversations about feelings, family attitudes to behaviour, schooling and friendship patterns and how the deaf child comes to perceive him or herself.

More recently, there has emerged a focus on well-being in children, what factors contribute to a deaf child feeling good about him or herself and showing mature social and emotional development. This seems a welcome move from describing problems or focusing on causes for problems in this development. It is an attempt to uncover those elements which contribute to the well-being of the child. Hindley, writing in 2004, has described a number of factors which can contribute to this. He suggests that three areas need attention for promotion of good social and emotional development - supporting parents with deaf infants, encouraging early conversations about thoughts and feelings and enabling deaf children to form peer relationships.

There have also been emerging discussions about what constitutes well-being in deaf children. Interestingly, Mary Griggs poses the question as to whether the experience of wellness in deaf adults was the same as that of hearing people. While she accepts that, for some deaf people being deaf was experienced in a negative way and that more deaf people suffered from mental distress then did hearing people, for others this was not the case. Based on a number of focus groups with deaf people who were members of the Deaf community she argued that for them well-being was accepting deafness as an essential part of themselves. In an interview study with young deaf adults , they were asked whether they ever wished they were hearing. While 47% said yes, 52% said they had never wished to be hearing or wished it in the past but no longer, saying that if they were hearing it would mean being a different person, or they were happy being deaf. (In fact, this was a continuation of the study mentioned earlier of young deaf children who were followed up when they reached adulthood, see Gregory, S. (1995) ‘Deaf young people and their families: achieving understanding’. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

This article has described a complex and changing view of the development of social and emotional behaviour. However, the future is likely to bring more changes. Developments in early diagnosis, technological developments and changes in society’s attitude to deaf people mean that life for deaf people is changing with different attitudes and expectations of social and emotional development.