IM this article to a friend!

December 31, 2004

Freeing children from isolation

From: The Tennessean, TN - Dec 31, 2004

Staff Writer

Two years ago, Ariel Boyle couldn't communicate the way most 3-year-olds can, because she couldn't hear what was being said to her.

Like other hearing-impaired children, Ariel would point, grunt, or throw a tantrum out of frustration at not being able to say or understand the simplest of things.

Now, after being in an intensive, language-rich preschool for two years, Ariel can talk to her parents, argue with her brothers, and chat with her friends. Next year, she may even attend class for children who do not have special needs.

The preschool at Buena Vista Elementary is part of Metro's special education program for the hearing-impaired. It helps about 300 children ages 3-21 crack the code of language by teaching sign language to those who are deaf and speech to those with limited hearing.

Using technology, repetition and intense, one-on-one instruction, the preschool is Metro's foundation for teaching hearing-impaired children to communicate and function in a world full of sound.

A clean slate

''It's a most amazing thing,'' Tonya Boyd said of finally being able to talk with her little girl. ''I can't even explain it.''

Tonya Bowman, whose daughter, Jasmyn Cheatham, is a classmate of Ariel's, is equally pleased.

Just six months in the preschool has made a ''tremendous difference'' in Jasmyn's speech, her mother said.

''Her language has improved as far as words. You can understand her words and her sentences.''

After another year of specialized preschool, Bowman said, Jasmyn, 4, will be ready to attend kindergarten in her regular school.

That is the ultimate goal of the preschool program to help each child return to the regular school with limited assistance.

But to do that, they first have to learn the basics.

And for hearing-impaired children, the basics are more difficult to teach.

Hearing children absorb the world around them from birth by listening to conversations, music and television.

''Hearing children come in to preschool with a wealth of knowledge they have tapped into just by hearing,'' said Marc Hayes, Metro's consultant for the hearing-impaired.

''Children who are hearing-impaired come in like clean slates.''

For those children, sound is garbled, if there's any sound at all. Simple items do not have names, because the children have never heard them.

''Hearing children hear all this information and understand it intuitively. A hearing-impaired child comes in with no such experience.''

So Sharon Siegel, who teaches the preschool class for the severely hard of hearing, starts at the very beginning. Wearing a microphone that works directly with the children's hearing aids, Siegel teaches the children their names and their ages.

Teaching colors or abstract ideas like ''little'' and ''big'' takes more time. ''These kids don't just hear it and pick it up. You have to be direct,'' said Siegel.

Across the hall, another teacher works with preschoolers who are deaf to help them learn the sign language names for the same items.

Cracking the code

In Siegel's class, the children sit in a half-circle facing the teacher.

Siegel speaks loudly, overemphasizing every syllable to make sure her microphone picks up every nuance, every syllable.

''What is your name?'' she says to a girl with brown hair and large eyes.

''Minahill,'' she responds.

''My name is Minahill,'' Siegel says, demonstrating what she wants the 5-year-old to say.

''How old are you?'' Siegel asks a fidgety boy.

He squirms in his chair. His hearing aid has fallen out. He can't hear her.

After a few rounds of questions, Siegel takes the class outside.

''Is it hot?'' she asks. ''No? What is it?''

Jasmyn grabs her arms and grimaces. She does not know the word for ''cold.''

''Cold. It is cold,'' Siegel tells her and has the girl say the word.

Back inside, they dress a teddy bear in appropriate clothing, naming the articles he needs to wear pants, socks, shoes, sweater, hat.

''We couldn't have done this at the beginning of the year,'' Siegel said. ''We had to learn the words for sweater and pants.''

In another lesson, Siegel works with small groups teaching the children ''big'' and ''small.'' It is a hard concept to grasp. Siegel holds up a large, foam reindeer and says ''big.'' With the smaller one she says ''small.'' But getting the children to learn that the words ''big'' and ''small'' apply to things other than reindeer will come later.

''Each experience for these children is like a brand-new thing,'' Hayes said. Each word is a separate item. Building connections between words takes constant repetition.

With enough repetition and exposure, the words eventually make sense.

Halfway through the school year, most of Siegel's students are now able to speak in some sentences.

When they play on the floor, they argue over who has the truck and who has the plastic man.

Siegel has also taught them about the holidays teaching them the words for tree and presents.

For Ariel and her mother, this Christmas had special meaning.

It was the first time the 5-year-old knew about Santa Claus.

Dorren Klausnitzer can be reached at 259-8066 or at

© Copyright 2004 The Tennessean