Considerations for Appropriate Assessments with Deaf Children

The issue

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Consider the purposes of conducting assessments with children who are deaf: obtaining a baseline against which to monitor developmental progress; identifying possible additional conditions that affect behavior, general development, and emotional adjustment; determining eligibility for special educational services or provision of other human services; designing objectives of individualized instruction and therapies indicated for deaf students; recommending a primary language of instruction; determining the locus of educational placement.  All are rather “high stakes” purposes and applications. To inform such determinations and decisions, parents desire and children deserve assessments conducted by qualified professionals.

What we know and what we don’t know

Beyond graduate degrees and professional credentials, special knowledge and skills are essential when considering the qualifications of professionals who assess deaf children. Professionals must be able to select assessment instruments and techniques that have proven validity and reliability when applied to deaf children. Professionals conducting assessments have the responsibility of analyzing results credibly, fully appreciating each child’s unique health history, audiological status, and distinctive communication abilities/preferences.

While working with deaf children, assessors must be able to convey instructions effectively. Communication style, communication preferences, and communicative behaviors vary among individuals who are deaf.  Professionals working with deaf children must responsibly employ appropriate means of connecting with and communicating with the child. Not only is rapport likely to be enhanced when evaluations are conducted in a manner that is sensitive to the deaf child’s communicative needs, but the value of assessment results will more accurately reflect the child’s abilities, potential, and skills. Integrating test results within the context of the individual deaf child’s experiential base, cultural orientation, preferred language, sensory capacities, and educational experiences is the responsibility of professionals who then inform diagnostic formulations and guide the recommendations which follow.

Professionals unfamiliar with or lacking experience working skillfully with deaf children may misrepresent a child’s abilities. Indications of vestibular dysfunction, for example, may be misunderstood by physical therapists or occupational therapists unfamiliar with features of motor development and balance issues associated with certain genetic syndromes or infectious diseases that account for why a child is deaf.  A speech-language pathologist may not distinguish developmental articulation errors from persistent omissions, distortions, and substitutions of speech sounds made by children who cannot perceive those sounds or monitor their own speech production auditorally. Cognitive assessment results could seriously underestimate intellectual functioning. Nuances of conceptual development expressed through American Sign Language will not be obvious to those who are not proficient signers. One cannot rely on employing interpreters as a solution for conducting assessments with children who are deaf. An interpreter is not a clinician and is not in a position to structure the conditions of assessments nor to infer meanings on behalf of either the child or the professional conducting the assessment.

Evaluations should be designed to address questions about children’s functional capabilities. Results may also raise questions that suggest referral for further investigation.  Caution must be applied that observations and findings not be misattributed to consequences of hearing loss alone, when in fact, other issues are worthy of investigation.  A deaf child’s fleeting attention to communication may be indicative of not being able to hear or perhaps to see what is being conveyed. Equipment (hearing aids, FM systems, cochlear implant speech processors) may need troubleshooting. Visual acuity and visual function may need to be examined. Also worthy of question may be general qualities of attention, executive function, self-regulation. The child’s general level of cognitive functioning, self-confidence and investment, or history of social connections may play a role.  There may need to be a change in the manner in which the child is being taught and/or the child’s primary language of instruction. Simply subsuming fleeting attention to communication as attributable to a child being deaf may result in overlooking factors that are crucial to understanding and working effectively with the child.

Professionals who are experienced and skilled in working with children who are deaf are most likely to know about and be in a position to recommend resources that benefit children and their families. Assessment results inform recommendations regarding teaching strategies, materials, community-based programs, and the breadth of educational options available to deaf students.

Implications

The importance of assuring that assessments are conducted by experienced professionals who have training and special skills for working with deaf children cannot be overstated.  In order to select appropriate measures, effectively administer assessments, make meaningful observations and offer impressions that inform educational teams, and contribute to making appropriate educational determinations for deaf children, evaluations should be conducted by professionals who are specifically trained for and experienced in working with children who are deaf.