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Hearing children, without language

There are children among us who cannot speak, cannot point, cannot make choices, and are unable to grasp even the most basic of patterns in communication. Even though some professionals may try to use basic sign language, I wonder how and in what way the child can “see” the hand signals in front of them.

I am often asked, “How do I reach these children and how can I find ways to connect with each child?”

Many of the youngsters are also severely visually impaired, blind, deaf/blind or have hearing problems that cause us to wonder how and in what way they are “hearing” and interpreting the world around them.

I can tell you that on the part of an educator who has entered this profession called special education, it is challenging, but possible to engage the most fragile child among us. Human to human contact is possible and even a sense of humor can be utilized.

I look for the most subtle of facial expression, a knitted brow, and slowly emerging smile. I use small musical instruments, a melodious voice, a gentle touch on the child’s small hand, and often rhythmical patterns of sound and drum beat. I do not use any technology when engaging these children. I use myself.

Most recently I discovered that some of the musical/silly cards that I have been given for holidays or birthdays can have an affect. These cards contain musical samples, even an interesting voice that is telling a story and more recently Hallmark and American Greeting cards have small lights emitted that tag along with the brief interludes of music. The children are watching and listening when and if they can and some of the kids show delighted smiles and even “sing” along with me and the music embedded in the cards. I will use lots of things to entice the non-verbal child to come forward, out of himself/herself and show expression and involvement. But, like I said, I do not use any smartboards or iPads. I use myself and often show shimmering star-filled fabrics that linger just above the child while singing “Twinkle, Twinkle” and gently moving the fabric around the child. Each child who has the ability will look in all directions, even try to reach out to the fabric.

I encourage staff who work with the non-verbal or pre-verbal child to be very “present” with the child and not to sit by like some babysitter as the child is placed in front of a computer, smartboard or other “screen” device. While I realize that therapists, teachers and assistants cannot always be interacting with the child nonstop, it is important to note that these very involved children are usually aware, on some level, of what is going on around them. I promote the use of music wherever and whenever I can. But to tell you the truth, I do not see enough lyrical engagement of these children. More recently I brought out a collection of little stuffed animal birds that I had purchased via the Audobon Society. You can find these little birds that feature their individual bird songs (when squeezed) at Hallmark stores or even pet stores where birds and bird feed are sold. I had a chance recently to use a little red cardinal toy that sings the cardinal warble ever so sweetly. The precious look on the child’s face was a real force of communication for me. His smile and vocalization was evident each and every time I activated the cardinal warble. Who says that the “music of the air” is not effective when bird song can reach these kids.

I strongly recommend the sounds of nature, the real “twitter” and chirps of the birds whenever possible. And most of all, don’t forget your own voices and the ability to sing and chant. The children are listening.

Jane Kronheim, a teacher of the visually impaired, is a folk artist and self-styled musician in Harrisville. She can be reached at

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