Mild hearing loss affects kids’ school performance

Children with hearing problems, even minimal, are significantly more likely to have academic problems, experts said Thursday.

Kids with impairments such as a loss of hearing in one ear, or an inability to hear sounds of certain pitches, were 10 times more likely to fail a grade or have other scholastic difficulties than normal-hearing children.

“It didn’t have to be a total hearing loss” to have an effect on kids at school, Dr. Anne Marie Tharpe said.

The message from this research is that all school-aged kids need to be tested for hearing problems, since many of those with mild impairments won’t even know they have then, Tharpe told AMN Health.

Unfortunately, many hearing tests are not sensitive enough to pick up on minor deficits, and are often performed on children in places with a lot of background noise, such as the school cafeteria, Tharpe noted. These tests are “not going to find the minimal losses,” said the researcher, who is based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Consequently, public health experts need to make sure all school-aged kids have been adequately screened for hearing losses, to find these mild impairments that can affect kids at school, Tharpe in an interview.

She added that, in many cases, the reason why kids have mild hearing problems is not clear. Some impairments likely stem from genetics, or complications of prematurity.

At the annual meeting of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Philadelphia, Tharpe presented the results of two studies that measured kids’ hearing and compared it to their performance at school. The studies included approximately 2,000 students, not all of whom had hearing disorders.

Tharpe was a researcher on one of the studies, and has since participated in research investigating techniques to help kids with hearing problems at school.

She explained that hearing difficulties hurt kids at school, because it’s hard to hear in a classroom even if your ears work fine.

Classrooms typically have a lot of background noise, she explained, from shuffling papers, restless bodies and sounds from outside the room. Often, there is reverberation as a teacher’s voice echoes off of hard surfaces, such as the tile floors or cinderblock walls, she said, and if there are a lot of students per class, the teacher will sometimes have to speak far away from students.

“Even for normal-hearing children, it causes problems,” she said.

Kids with below-par hearing don’t “necessarily” have to wear a hearing aid, Tharpe noted. For instance, she and her colleagues are investigating the use of an FM system, in which the teacher wears a microphone, which raises her voice and sends it either to speakers or a small device that kids with hearing problems can wear.

She added that, despite the added burden of hearing loss, all kids with mild hearing problems are not doomed to struggle in the classroom. “There’s still a large percentage that do just fine,” she said.

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: June 21, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.