When setting off for kindergarten or first grade, a child may feel prepared with a backpack loaded with crayons, pencils and paper. But a good start in the classroom depends on more than just school supplies. Healthy hearing, vision, speech and language are key to success at school. If a child has problems in these areas, the sooner they're spotted, the better they can be treated.
Sometimes problems with senses, speech or language can fly under the radar. A child with a lazy eye or a little hearing loss might get along just fine at home or in daycare. But when children get to school, minor difficulties may start to catch up with them. They may have trouble focusing and flourishing in the classroom. NIH-funded scientists are searching for better ways to recognize and treat these types of problems as early as possible.
Permanent hearing loss used to be caught around age 2. Now newborns are screened for hearing loss before leaving the hospital. When problems are diagnosed, most children are fitted with hearing aids in the first few months of life.
But hearing problems can also arise in older kids. "Some children can be born with normal hearing and develop hearing loss later for various reasons," says Dr. Mary Pat Moeller, who studies childhood deafness and language development at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Nebraska. Head injuries and meningitis are just a few conditions that can lead to later hearing loss.
"We rely on normal hearing to pick up concepts and learn new words," Moeller says. But a noisy classroom can be tough for kids who can't hear well. "Children with undetected hearing loss may look like they have attention deficits. They may miss what they've been told because they're just not hearing clearly," Moeller says.
Screening for hearing loss in school-age kids is a familiar process. Children wear headphones and raise their hands as they hear a series of tones. Some 5% to 10% of school-age children don't pass these tests. Kids with hearing loss can be fitted with hearing aids.
Children learn language by listening to others and engaging in conversations. But kids with hearing loss can miss out on some of this experience. Moeller and her colleagues are studying how children with hearing loss develop language. Early results from this NIH-funded research point to several factors that can help. These include the quality and fit of hearing aids, how often kids get speech and language training and how often parents have conversations with their children.