There are many ways in which Teachers of the Deaf can promote deaf children's social and emotional development. In doing so they will help deaf children avoid many of the preventable developmental delays which contribute to emotional and behavioural problems. I want to concentrate on three areas of work which I think can make a significant difference. They are: supporting parents so that their deaf infants form secure attachment relationships with them; encouraging early conversations about thoughts and feelings; and enabling deaf children to meet in order to foster peer relationships and a sense of deaf identity.
The first is in supporting healthy relationships between deaf infants and their parents and other family members. The development of a secure attachment relationship between a deaf infant and his/her hearing parents provides a sound foundation on which to build a well-rounded person. A secure attachment relationship develops when parents are emotionally available to their infant and respond sensitively, saliently and predictably. Three factors can interfere with this process with deaf infants: firstly the sense of loss and distress that many parents initially feel when they realise that their child is deaf; secondly fear - fear of the unknown, fear for their child's future, fear of other people's reactions and, for a few, fear of the child itself; thirdly difficulties in communication.
Parents need emotional support, from their family and friends and from professionals, to process these feelings, each in his or her own time. Parents need accurate and impartial information with somebody to explain that information in an impartial, unbiased way. Developing understanding is one way of overcoming the unknown. Some parents will benefit from meeting a deaf adult. This may help them to realise that the worst of their fears are unfounded. Most parents will benefit from meeting other parents of deaf children, to help them feel less alone and to learn from other parents' experience. All parents should be offered a real choice of communication methods to use with their infant. Effective, early communication between infants and their parents is a vital precursor for many aspects of later development. When the child is very young it is impossible to predict which children will be sign language users and which will use spoken language. Offering both from the beginning will maximize all children's developmental potential. A point not accepted by all, of course.
Early communication within the family, particularly conversations about what people are thinking and feeling, are crucial drivers for two key areas of development. Children's awareness of other people's thoughts, so called meta-cognition, appears to develop through the experience of talking to other people about other people's thoughts. Many deaf children miss out on these kinds of conversation. Either their parents do not have sufficient effective language to have these conversations with them or parents are more concerned with ensuring their deaf child gets the basic facts. Equally, children's understanding of their own and other people's emotions develops through conversational experience. Again, many parents either lack the language to have these conversations or feel other areas of language development are more important.
Teachers of the Deaf can play a vital role in supporting parents in ensuring that deaf children experience these conversations. In the absence of this kind of experience, deaf children are vulnerable to delays in meta-cognition and in emotional functioning which make them vulnerable to emotional and behavioural problems in later life. These delays can be further compounded because deaf children have greater difficulty in accessing the incidental learning with same-age peers, older children and adults which underpins continuing social and emotional development.
Finally, having effective peer relationships and developing a positive deaf identity are crucial to healthy development. Children in mainstream settings may have very limited contact with other deaf children and with deaf adults. Opportunities for informal social contacts with deaf peers are essential in providing access to peers who share similar experiences and offer a positive model for their lives as adults. Curricular work in Deaf Studies can provide a useful academic forum within which this can be further explored.
Teachers of deaf children work in a variety of settings, from early intervention teams to further education colleges. The three areas that I have outlined above run like skeins of colour through their work, varying in intensity according to the child's age. Attachment and meta-cognition will be crucial in the pre-school years. Peer groups and deaf identity will be more important in secondary school and further education. But awareness of all three areas will be crucial for teachers of deaf children to discharge the essential responsibilities that they carry in ensuring deaf children's long term well-being.
First published in the BATOD Association Magazine January 2004