Toddlers are busy people and this group was no different.
Kids played at the sand table, sifting grains from one container to another. Other kids rolled Play-Doh with miniature rolling pins or zipped toy cars in and out of a plastic garage.
But this class was a bit quieter than most toddler groups. The adults were doing most of the vocalizing and each of the children wore some sort of hearing device, whether cochlear implants, hearing aids or Baha bands.
This was the weekly toddler class at Spokane HOPE (Hearing Oral Program of Excellence) – the only listening and spoken language program in the region.
“We’re maximizing the use of their technology and getting them ready to for school to be able to function among their hearing friends,” said Amy Hardie, education director.
Founded in 2004, the HOPE program trains kids to deal with hearing loss by familiarizing them with technology like cochlear implants and hearing aids. The school offers in-home teaching, a parent and toddler program and a preschool program.
“We’re a nonprofit. Seventy percent of our funding comes from fundraising, grants and individual donations,” said Kim Schaefer, development director.
May is Better Hearing and Speech month and the teachers, parents and children at HOPE demonstrate the importance of early diagnosis and intervention.
Ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.
The school focuses on children in the crucial birth to 5-years-old age range. Currently, Hardie visits 30 babies in their homes. Older kids come to the school, located on East Fifth Street. The school was recently advised the building is for sale.
“We’re currently looking for a new location,” Schaefer said.
For now, toddlers, preschoolers and their parents have a safe, nurturing environment where they are encouraged to use spoken language.
“Sign language is wonderful,” Hardie said. “But we encourage parents to incorporate spoken language, too. Children are learning language in the womb, that’s why it’s very important parents talk to their child from birth. Language involves words, touch, facial expression and signs.”
The communication modality Hardie provides is parent choice. Examples of communication modalities include: listening and spoken language (accessed through hearing technology) sign language and total communication.
A speech language pathologist and a college student preparing to be a teacher for the deaf also work with the children.
“And we try to have a hearing child in each of our sessions to model where kids should be at this age,” Schaefer said.
Repetition, words spoken with action, and singing are all ways to build auditory memory and encourage vocalization.
Hardie carefully enunciated words as she and Wren Burright, 23 months, played with cars.
“She really enjoys all the music,” said Wren’s mom, Chelsea Burright.
She said Wren was a failure-to-thrive baby who failed her newborn hearing screening. Despite that, it wasn’t until she was 9 months that she was diagnosed with mild to moderate hearing loss.
“The diagnosis was actually a relief,” Burright said. “We thought she had autism. When she got tubes in her ears, she started babbling, responding and making eye contact. When she got her Baha band she made a huge leap in speech.”
Each week, parents get a note informing them what was covered in class, so they can continue working on it at home.
“Parents are the child’s first teacher,” Schaefer said. “It takes a village of parents, teachers, speech therapists and audiologists.”
She also stressed the significance of parents connecting with each other.
“It’s so important for parents to meet other parents who are on the same journey,” she said.
While their children learn and play downstairs, parents are encouraged to visit with each other upstairs, until they join their kids for music time.
As Lukas Willoughby, 2 1/2 made shapes with Play-Doh, his parents chatted with others.
“He was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at 5 weeks,” said his mom, Felicia Willoughby.
They learned about HOPE when Hardie came to their home to work with Lukas.
“He got bilateral cochlear implants a few days after his first birthday and the change was dramatic,” Willoughby said. “He responded to music and that was huge. We’re a big music family and it broke my heart that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.”
She said the services and support from HOPE have been invaluable.
“When we first got the diagnosis we were like, what do we do?” Willoughby said. “It’s so nice to know you’re not alone and to feel like you belong somewhere. I’ve met my best friends through HOPE.”
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