Visual Attention in the Early Childhood Classroom

The issue

Visual attention (VA) is the ability to attend visually to relevant information while filtering out irrelevant information within an environment. VA is developed by age two in typically developing children. Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) 2-year-olds, however, may have limited VA and difficulty with maintaining and redirecting VA in the educational setting. At this age, many DHH children therefore are not ready to allocate their attention to attend to linguistic information through VA, leaving them underprepared to learn in formal and informal learning situations.  The task of attending visually becomes more complex when children have a hearing loss and access their education primarily through visual means (e.g., American Sign Language, sign supported speech, speechreading to support spoken language access).  The difficulty of establishing and maintaining attention in the classroom, from a teacher’s perspective, means lost instructional time for academic subjects. Some DHH children begin school with language skills that are different than their same-age hearing peers. Access to language through VA is necessary for children to learn.  Without looking, we can assume they may not be learning.

What we know

In order to access and produce a visual language, you must maintain eye gaze. DHH children are expected to understand this concept implicitly.  However, only five percent of DHH children are born to DHH parents and incidentally learn cultural and linguistic strategies used to enhance attention to visual information within the home environment.  Research has identified three types of strategies have been observed to get and maintain VA of DHH children in the home, including visual (e.g., wave), tactile (e.g., vibration on table or floor), and linguistic (e.g., larger signing space).  Findings indicate that DHH parents use VA strategies both automatically and intentionally. Most DHH children are born to hearing parents, however, and hearing parents may use different attention-getting strategies that are not the most beneficial for developing VA abilities.  Some hearing parents may need support to teach their DHH child VA accessibility.

Skilled preschool teachers of DHH students use the same types of strategies in the classroom as are seen in homes with deaf parents. DHH teachers, in particular, use VA strategies with linguistic and cultural awareness similar to DHH parents.  However, hearing teachers who have acquired a sign language as their second language may use VA strategies with less accuracy or less consistently.  The largest discrepancy between the teachers with and without an implicit understanding of VA strategies lies in the importance of children’s shifting their gaze toward the teacher prior to linguistic input.

Effective VA strategies that can be used in the classroom include:

  • Providing wait-time to allow children the opportunity to look at an object being discussed prior to linguistic input.  When their eye gaze shifts to you, then begin to provide linguistic input.
  • Tapping students gently 2-3 times on the shoulder or arm to look in your direction (no other body part is socially or culturally acceptable).
  • A small (visible) wave from the wrist can be used if the student is close. If the student is far away a large wave from the elbow is acceptable.
  • Flashing the lights to get the entire groups attention for a transition
  • Using a larger signing space and exaggerating facial expressions.

What we don’t know

There is limited research from educational settings on how VA influences DHH children’s learning. The following areas need to be examined in more depth to expand the understanding of this complex phenomenon:

  • Effectiveness of strategies implemented by educators to establish, maintain, and enhance VA
  • Duration of VA of DHH children across educational settings
  • Frequency of eye gaze shifts between communication partners (e.g., teachers, interpreters, peers) and educational materials (e.g., books, tasks, visual displays)
  • Active and passive engagement of DHH students in relation to VA strategies used by the teacher
  • Duration of access to content through visual, tactile, and linguistic strategies
  • Relationship between DHH children’s VA ability and academic outcomes
  • Linguistic and cultural components of VA.


DHH children require explicit and intentional instruction to enhance their VA abilities.  Use of effective VA strategies ideally begins in the home and requires implementation in the early childhood classrooms. Teachers awareness of the need for implementing VA-supporting strategies in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways, can lead to increased VA skills among DHH students.  Increasing VA ability will allow the teacher to spend less time establishing and redirecting attention of the DHH students and provide more opportunities for learning.  Developing VA skills at an early age can shift the trajectory of DHH students’ future academic outcomes.

Posted on April 2, 2018 by
Janna Hasko
National Leadership Consortium in Sensory Disabilities
University of Arizona
dunagan {at}


Further reading