3 Strategies to Support Theory of Mind Development in Children with Hearing Loss

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“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

As adults, many of us automatically stop to consider others’ point of view. Whether that’s how the other person views a situation, feels about a situation or how they may even react to a situation. This is a simple explanation of the Theory of Mind (ToM). It is also a deep-rooted skill that is learned and developed in early childhood. So, how is ToM affected by early hearing loss?

Hearing loss and Theory of Mind

As we grow, our brains are continually working to make sense of the world around us, including ourselves and others. Theory of mind is defined as “the ability to interpret one’s own and other people’s mental and emotional states, understanding that each person has unique motives, perspectives, etc.” This understanding is the foundation of empathy.

Generally, children have begun to develop ToM by age four or five, but studies have found that children with hearing loss may experience significant delays in ToM. This delay is believed to be due to less opportunity to hear language and reduced social interactions and communication in general.

Hearing healthcare providers, pediatricians and others who work closely with hearing impaired children are now stressing the importance of nurturing ToM in this population through targeted interventions and additional support for both child and family.

How to support ToM in children with hearing loss

While children with hearing loss may be at higher risk of delayed ToM development, this doesn’t have to be a given. Many hearing health care providers and other experts offer a variety of recommendations, in addition to early diagnosis and treatment with hearing aids, cochlear implants and similar options, to help families of children with hearing loss build their child’s language and ToM development including:

  1. Read to childrenStudy after study points to the importance of reading aloud and language development (among a long list of other benefits). While this is true for every child, it is especially true for children with a diagnosis of hearing loss. Books that not only tell a story but also discuss emotions are a smart choice to help children develop language and a better understanding of others.
  2. Cultivate a love of pretend play – Kids naturally can spend hours engrossed in pretend play. This type of play could be their most crucial opportunity to learn. For families working to develop their child’s ToM, this is especially important to help a child with hearing loss safely play through possibilities and interactions to understand themselves and others better. It may be time to simplify with fewer electronics and more imagination and creativity.
  3. Encourage use of hearing aids – It can be tempting for kids with hearing aids to go without them during the day. For younger kids especially, hearing aids may seem an uncomfortable annoyance that is easily removed. Studies show that for kids with hearing loss, language development depends heavily upon the use of hearing aids during the day from the moment they wake until they go to bed at night. This allows children to hear more language, take part in more interactions and conversations (even a game of peek-a-boo can be a conversation to the youngest kids) and build a better understanding of ToM.

As with so many other aspects of parenting a child with hearing loss, families don’t have to go it alone. Taking advantage of support groups and other resources can help give children the skills they need while helping them and their families thrive.

If your child has been diagnosed with hearing loss, talk to your hearing healthcare provider, pediatrician or support team about strategies to develop ToM and avoid any delays.

If you believe your child may have hearing loss, contact our office to schedule a hearing evaluation.

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