Don’t dismiss your child as a poor learner. Don’t allow the school to dub your child as lazy. Check if the child can actually hear what’s being said

In our school circumstances, childhood hearing loss is a common problem. About ten to 15 per cent of all elementary school children experience a temporary hearing loss from a middle ear infection known as Otitis Media caused by virus, bacteria or fungi. It causes a build-up of fluid in the area behind the eardrum. When the middle year is filled with fluid, it prevents the transmission of the sound vibrations from the ear drum to the inner ear, resulting in fluctuating or mild to moderate temporary hearing loss. Many parents and teachers are not able to easily identify the symptoms because the behavioural effect is often subtle. It is unlike a child with vision-related problems who may squint at the blackboard or misread a paragraph.

Few teachers and parents realise the impact that middle-ear infection can have on a child’s ability to hear and process what he heard in the classroom. If you are keen to know how significant that fluid build-up is, plug your ears with your fingers and listen to someone talk. This is how voices sound to children with middle ear infection!

According to Dr. Gowri Shankar, lecturer in hearing and speech at the Ali Yaver Jung National Institute for Hearing Handicap (AYJNIHH), middle ear receives speech sounds of different pitches - low frequency for vowels, high frequencies for consonants. When the middle ear is filled with fluid, the low frequencies can pass through while high frequencies cannot because there is not enough energy to transmit them. As a result, the speech sounds (m, db, n, ng, ch, sh, ph, th, s, f, s) are missed entirely or not heard distinctly or are heard differently from one time to another.

When a child has OM, the fluid that arises takes an average of 40 days to be absorbed or drained. Imagine a child who has recurring or chronic ear infection throughout the year!!

Children with minimal hearing loss miss out on at least 10 per cent of classroom instructions resulting in considerable learning difficulties when they reach third standard. Research has shown that a typical classroom provides an inadequate environment when speaking is the primary tool of instruction. Most class rooms have high levels of background noise and reverberations that interfere with speech perception, especially for a child with fluctuating or minimal to moderate hearing loss. He has to make an effort to get meaning of what he has heard. This causes mental fatigue which eventually leads to a general feeling of being tired. The inability to hear what is taught in class properly diminishes the desire to learn or complete tasks. They are also unable to perform multiple tasks such as note taking, answering questions and following directions, while listening to the teacher. They are often at risk of being labeled as ‘ADHD’, ‘Learning Disabled’ or simply ‘lazy’. Therefore, hearing assessment by an audiologist is highly recommended to be done on every child, especially for those who have poor academic achievement. The audiologist can counsel families about what to expect and how to create a rich language atmosphere within the home.

Speech pathologist and audiologist, Pushpa Srinivasan says that in our overcrowded classrooms and schools situated in noisy market places, near the railway tracks or the highways, even children with normal hearing are at risk. This is the era of technology, she says, and the best way to overcome such problem is to use assistive devices. Modifications may be needed in the home, day-care centres and school environment as well. They can be low-tech, like strategic placement of carpet remnants within the room, or high-tech, like the placement of a sound field FM system.

Students with undiagnosed hearing loss have lower self esteem, have more problems and tend to isolate themselves. There is desperate need to spread the word to parents, grandparents and educators about childhood hearing loss. If you can move ahead by taking positive steps, your child will benefit and you will be able to look forward to a satisfying future.