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Social-Emotional Support for Students (DHH): Middle School Years

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[Video title display, "Stories & Strategies - Social-Emotional Support for Students Who Are Deaf/Hard of Hearing - Middle School Years"]

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Emily K (voicing): Middle school years are difficult for all students to navigate but are often more difficult for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Also, as mentioned in the introduction, students who are deaf or hard of hearing will be referred to as “students” unless otherwise noted when compared to those who are hearing. 

In order to make healthy connections in school and life, students need to learn how to get along with others, exercise good judgment and manage their emotions. Social skills also include interpersonal life skills that progress through childhood into adolescence and adulthood. Middle school years are particularly challenging as students evolve their social connections from physical play to more complex and sophisticated language in a wider variety of social situations. 

Middle school is a critical time for development of self-identity and social relationships for all students. Students have the added challenge of navigating a world with limited access to communication. They may struggle with making connections and the social aspects of friendships with many different peers. It is important to remember that each student is an individual, but many students share common experiences and challenges. However, it is not always a positive experience as Jessalyn shares next.  

Lived Experience:  

Jessalyn (signing): As a Deaf girl who went to school with 15 other kids who were Deaf and Hard of Hearing, only 3 other kids were my age. Two of them were girls, and I became friends with them.

These two girls would take the same bus home as we all traveled 30 minutes each way to go to school. Every other day, the girls would decide if they would be my friend or not. The bullying in this small group was intense and horrific.  This lasted almost 4 ½ years. Part of what the teachers did was to try to continue to fix our friendships by demanding that they be nice to me. This didn’t help the situation.  What was needed was more social language.  Instead, the teachers should have not only shared this information with my parents, who were clueless about the bullying but also they should have taught me to advocate for myself by giving me words for what to say and encouraging me to find better friends.  This took a huge social-emotional toll on me.

Emily M (voicing).  It is important for teachers to recognize the social struggles and provide students with the social language supports needed to develop and foster friendships.  

When considering social-emotional goals for IEPs, friendship is a very important topic to teach to the middle school-aged students because of the nuances of friendship levels and the language involved. There are approximately four levels of friendships that students need to learn about in order to understand the social dynamics of middle school. The first level of friendship might be when students share a friendly greeting in the hallway which is called acquaintances.  It is important for students to be aware that other students may greet them in the hall and the social norm would be to respond with “Hi”, smile, or a head nod. It is also important for students to recognize that these students are not necessarily good friends.

Lived Experience: 

Diane (signing): An eighth-grade student, who is hard of hearing and has other disabilities, desperately wanted to fit in with her peers but she does not have full access when others are chatting and relies on what she can see other girls doing. The student has said she thinks that other students are her friend when  they wave and smile at her The student has said,  “That is my good friend because she smiles at me and waves to me every morning in the hallways.” 

In another situation, the same student sees a group of girls that she wants to be friends with and she sees them doing ‘jumper cables’ on each other, laughing hysterically about it as a group.  ‘Jumper cables’ are when someone pokes another person on the side, and that person jumps.  It is implied that there is a level of close friendship that allows them to touch each other like that.   Not understanding levels of friendship, the student jumped in among the group of girls and started doing ‘jumper cables’ on one of the girls.  The girls were startled and looked at her first with shock and then discomfort.  Smiles were fake and uncomfortable.  They were unsure of how to respond to the student.   The student laughs at them, thinking that they accept her attempt to join the group with ‘jumper cables’, but she’s unaware of the social norms.  An interpreter observes the interaction and tries to provide social coaching to the student.  However, the student says that the girls are her good friends because they smile and say hello each morning.  She does not know their names.  Understanding levels of friendship needs to be taught directly since some students rely only on vision and what they observe. 

Emily K (voicing).: Acquaintances might also be students who work together in groups or sit near each other in class. Acquaintance relationships can be confusing for students, especially those in younger middle school years when they transition from elementary school with more physical play on the playground to the expectation of developing deeper friendships. Teachers can offer descriptions of different levels of friendship so that students understand what they mean and learn who they can trust with what information.

Lived Experience:

Diane: Casual friendships are the second level which is when students start having basic conversation and maybe ask for help with homework or ask to be a partner on a group project. The third level of friendship is close friends which occurs when students explore shared family and their own values, mutual interests and feel safe to share personal information.  Students usually hang out together outside of school and participate in similar activities or clubs.  They may do an activity around the community together.  Finally, there are bonded or intimate friendships.  These are usually limited to one or two friends and include strong support for each other, mutual respect and honesty with each other.  Frequently these friends spend quite a bit of time together and talk or share lots of thoughts and ideas, and deep conversations.   

Lived Experience:

Jaemi:  In sixth grade, I attended the local middle school only for one year. I did have cued language transliterator and ASL interpreters, who switched regularly, as well as special education services. But I was very isolated in sixth grade and did not socialize much. I had a couple of friends that I spent time with occasionally, but otherwise, I kept to myself most of the time. In addition, I struggled with the nuances in the academic curriculum that I was learning. For example, one time in social studies class, we were watching an educational movie about a Native American tribe somewhere. A recurring scene in the movie was that one at a time, girls would be taken into a room by an older man, and the door was closed behind them. I kept asking the teacher what this meant, but even his answers didn’t make sense to me. It turned out that it was rape and prostitution.   This is an example of inferential information that other kids might have understood and talked about during the movie, but I missed it.  

Even though I had ASL interpreters, CLTs, and special education services during sixth grade, I started getting frustrated that I needed them.  I didn’t want to be the one that needed help all the time and did not want to have interpreters or CLTs in my classes with me. I wanted to be self-sufficient and independent.  Because I was the only Deaf student in the entire school, I stood out because there was staff that was always with me. 

Emily M (voicing): Jaemi’s feelings are common for middle school-aged students who use interpreter or transliterator services to access academic and social information.  However, even when she was able to understand what was being said during a movie, through captions, she missed some of the nuances and incidental social information, even though it was not good.

It’s also important that middle school-aged students learn to interpret the social context and change their social behavior based on that interpretation. One way that teachers could model conversations, both appropriate and inappropriate can be shown through videos with closed captions. Another option would be to discuss the point of view of a character from a story. It’s important that teachers and parents remember that hearing students have constant access to a wide variety of conversations both in structured situations in the classroom as well as unstructured situations in the lunchroom or in social events. Therefore, students who are deaf or hard of hearing need visually accessible examples and practice making conversation through videos, role-playing, and other strategies. Jaemi shares how having online school affected her socially.  It’s important to remember friend connections through technology cannot completely replace in-person communication and interactions.

Lived Experience:

Jaemi (voicing and cueing): For part of seventh grade, my mom home-schooled me. Then for the latter half of seventh grade, I went to an online school that I attended until tenth grade. At this online school, I did not need any ASL interpreters or CLTs because all instruction and classes were online. Though the teachers spoke over a microphone, I was able to understand most of the time because they were in quiet areas. 

Attending this online school might have been one of my better parts of my educational experience, except that it really hindered my social experience. It was an online school so I did not get daily or even weekly in-person interactions with my peers. All classes and meetings took place online through Blackboard, but I only saw my peers in-person once a month or once every 2-3 months. While developing connections with peers online was beneficial in that all communication was typed, it was difficult not having daily in-person socialization. 

Emily K (voicing): With Jaemi’s online experience she was able to experience more success with typed communication, but not able to develop friendships or make social connections. Teachers and parents need to consider the development of these skills when making placement decisions for students. 

It is also important to consider students’ personalities when thinking about social skills and assertiveness. Some students may be quieter and prefer to work independently, while other students may be more outgoing and want to have increased social friendships. In addition, if students have had some negative experiences, they might be shy.  The definition of being shy is being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people.  

Teachers can discuss with students what their social goals are for middle school.  This can be done using the self-determination model of learning which asks students to choose a social goal and make an action plan. Then teachers can provide some educational supports to help students meet goals and then adjust as needed. Goals might include getting to know one or two people on a sports team or in a club. It might also mean asking someone to hang out at their house.

With this goal-setting teachers need to consider the personality of the student when helping them to set goals. Even though students might join extra-curricular activities and meet social goals, sometimes during the school day a listening break is needed, and not necessarily to avoid talking with other students, as Ann shares next.

Lived Experience: 

Ann (signing):  When I was in school, I was a solitaire, the only deaf student in my small town.  Since I was an only and also didn’t have a teacher of deaf/hard of hearing from second grade through graduation, I learned social skills through my siblings and then by taking some risks. My parents encouraged me to be in extracurricular activities, and I was active on the newspaper as an editor, yearbook staff, cheerleading where I could yell as loud as I wanted and FHA.  I advocated on the cheerleading team to have people slow down the cheers until I had them memorized. Anyway, in school, I often did not talk with other kids during lunch.  It was and still is, too noisy for me to understand people talking.  So, I developed a pattern of reading while eating.  I’m somewhat of a quieter person but really do like being around other people.  Reading gives the message that I’m busy and if someone wants to talk with me, then they know they need to tap my shoulder.  This wasn’t avoidance as some teachers might think, but it was rather a way to give myself a listening break and to feel safe.  Therefore, it’s important for teachers to consider the personality of the students and perhaps ask why they’re doing what they do.  For me, it was survival and energy conservation to read during lunch.  Without the break, anxiety creeps up because of the energy drain having to continue listening, especially when it’s noisy and I was trying to fit in.  I still take breaks as a professional.  Sometimes, I find it’s just a lot of emotional and mental work to figure out what to say.

Diane (signing):  Often times in middle school, students begin to feel social pressures and feel embarrassed about not having access to social information in classrooms as well as during less structured situations, such as lunchtime. They might also discontinue the use of their hearing assistive technology or seem to ignore the interpreter in order to feel as if they fit in.  As I relate in my next story, going along with the crowd is sometimes an embarrassing lesson to learn, especially when situations are not accurately reflective of the student.

Lived experience:

Diane:  When I was a freshman in high school and it was the end of the school year, some friends and I walked out of the school before the final bell rang.  Someone in the friend group forgot something back in the school, so we all walked back into the building, but we got caught by a bouncer and were taken to the office.  The administrator talked with us, but I didn’t understand what was being said and copied the “friends” facial expressions and shrugged my shoulders.  I didn’t realize she had made a nasty comment and so my expressions were interpreted as defiance and I was sentenced to in-school detention the next day.  I was ashamed and embarrassed, and my parents made me go through with the punishment.  After that I was more careful but withdrew a bit, keeping to myself to avoid getting in trouble.  I realized there was more to friendships than just agreeing with whatever people were saying, especially if I didn’t hear them.

Emily M (voicing): Diane’s story is an example of how social pressure and lack of access to auditory information impacts understanding. Teachers can provide scaffolding and modeling for social interactions that are planned as well as review when social mistakes happen. The Boys Town Social Skills List can be an effective tool for this. These lists provide information about appropriate social behaviors and skills that need to be taught directly and clearly which helps students learn age-appropriate social competencies.  

Another area for social development, might include participation in extracurricular activities. Middle school is the age where being involved in activities begins to lead to opportunities for socialization, friendships, and shared experiences. Participation in extracurricular activities also increases leadership opportunities, decision making, and interpersonal communication. Teachers can have discussions with students about areas of interest and how their hearing may or may not affect participation and strategies to help them connect in challenging situations. With that information students can make decisions about what accommodations they might want to make in order to participate in activities.

Lived experience:

Hannah (voicing): Listening in the water is very hard sometimes but luckily I have some amazing and very loud coaches. Swimming is a fall sport, so joining the swim team helped me make friends before school started. One thing that was very hard for me was starting on the blocks because of the start. The start is a very loud sound and often you switch lanes between races. It takes me a few extra seconds to process the sound and know what to do. Sometimes it leaves me a few seconds behind in my race. We haven't found a solution for this but that's okay. I'm still very fast. In badminton, it was more easier because it's not in a pool. One thing about badminton is that if you do doubles, you have to communicate, but me and my partner have found a good way of communicating without talking during games. Sometimes we do have to talk during a game in case one of us isn't paying attention if one of us cannot get the birdie.  

Emily M (voicing): Participating in extracurricular activities helped Hannah learn to make accommodations for her hearing loss in social situations, develop social competencies and friendships through shared interests.  

Another consideration for middle school-aged students is the connection of Deaf or hard of hearing role models. Providing students with a positive adult Deaf or hard of hearing role model can empower students by knowing others have had similar struggles and learning strategies for improved communication or social access in multiple settings. It is imperative that middle school students know that there are others who have gone before them in order to develop a stronger sense of well-being and connectedness. Self-identity questions may start to arise in the middle school years that may not have been noticed in elementary school.

Lived Experience:

Jessalyn (signing): I loved the role models that I had later in my life who basically let me know that I could do whatever I wanted and that yes, it would not be easy but as long as I understood my rights, my own voice and stood ground, that I would accomplish everything I set my mind to . I did. Some days were harder and defeating, and we often don't have the opportunity to share that with others. It is important that students understand that they are not alone, and yes, there is a future that waits for them and it does not have to have limitations. We set our own bar, we reach our own goals. There will be times we must overcome many challenges but the rewards at the end of succeeding and surviving are amazing. 

Emily K (voicing): Encouraging these home-based interventions with extracurricular activity participation and access to deaf or hard of hearing role models are effective tools to promote positive self-image and increase social opportunities for students.  

It is also important to consider the environment that the middle school students are in. Students no longer have just one teacher. Instead, they are traveling from classroom to classroom, trying to navigate many different social situations. Different teachers have different academic, communication and social expectations. Some teachers expect students to be active participants in the lesson, while others focus their lessons around group work. This can be challenging for students to navigate. They may need different accommodations in different classes in order to be successful classroom participants. It is important that teachers not only talk with students about their classrooms to improve access but also talk about the changes in peer relationships so that students can have positive social interactions. 

Jessalyn (signing): Middle school is a time when students have heightened awareness of being different and when other students or teachers make comments to cause them to stand out from the crowd, this can lead to the development of triggers.  With those triggers, parents and teachers may notice more resistance in different situations.  It’s important to gently probe or ask questions to learn what caused a trigger to develop. Triggers are actions or words that cause embarrassment and/or feelings of shame for students. Often these triggers don’t get labeled that way and are just attributed to the mainstream setting. For example often teachers aren’t prepared and students are asked to watch a video without captions. The teacher says “Oh, you can watch it later,” but this lack of inclusiveness feels embarrassing or shameful during the trials of adolescence. The student may feel like they are a burden to the teacher or less important than other students. Or teachers ask students “Can you hear me?” or “ Is the microphone working?”  However, there are some students that are not embarrassed and go right along with it, even shouting, “YES, IT’S WORKING!” because of strong connections with teachers and classmates and personality.  It’s important to remember that students are individuals and to check with them.  

Lived Experiences

Diane (signing):  I remember a student who had unilateral deafness.  From an early age, she was encouraged to be a strong self-advocate, preferring to talk with teachers after before or after class if she had questions that needed to be clarified.  The teacher of students who are deaf and hard of hearing was involved and supportive, however, when the student was in later middle school years, she did not want other people to know she could not hear in one ear.  She became more sensitive to the fact that she was hard of hearing and therefore, she preferred more discreet ways of getting access with technology so she did not stand out.

Jessalyn (signing): Sometimes having access to other students who are deaf or hard of hearing is a much-needed connection which only happens in the summers at camps. It can be useful to connect students with others who share similar experiences. Students can discuss the triggers and how they felt in situations where they were treated differently. If there is another student in the school, then it is important that those students meet each other occasionally.  For students who are unable to meet others in school, technology can be empowering because of the connections across miles.

When thinking about the middle school years, it’s most important to remember that for each student, it’s a unique journey because they are all individuals with different personalities, experiences, possible triggers, family support and access to teachers of students who are deaf and hard of hearing as well as other students.  Middle school years have many ups and downs and are very important when students are learning social-emotional skills to take care of themselves and to learn about friendships.  IEP goals might focus on friendship levels, how to approach people and have a conversation as well as recognizing triggers and what to do when feeling uncomfortable in new or repeated situations.  Strategies can include role-playing, scripts, watching videos with captions and seeing other people figure out what to do.  It is most important to remember that not having access to others who have shared experiences can create isolation, but there are many more tools now to connect students with each other to help ease the struggles of adolescence and changing self-identities.

Additional materials and ideas can be found on the Resources list linked to this webinar.  We hope teachers discover ideas to support social-emotional development and skills that are unique to students who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

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Thank you to the following individuals who contributed their time, knowledge and skills to this webinar production:

Jessalyn Akerman-Frank, Director of Community and Civic Engagement - Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing

Emily Kedrowski, Teacher of Deaf/Hard of Hearing - St. Paul Public Schools

Emily Manson, Teacher of Deaf/Hard of Hearing - St. Paul Public Schools

Ann Mayes, Dean of Students/Teacher of Deaf/Hard of Hearing - Intermediate School District 917

Anna Paulson, Coordinator of Educational Advancement and Partnerships - Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing

Diane Schiffler-Dobe, Teacher of Deaf/Hard of Hearing - Brainerd Public Schools/ Paul Bunyan Education Cooperative

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Thank you to the following people who shared their Lived Experiences as deaf or hard of hearing students:

Jessalyn Akerman-Frank

Jaemi Hagen

Ann Mayes

Diane Schiffler-Dobe

Kobe Schroeder

Hannah Taylor

Ka Lia Yang

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Thank you to the certified sign language interpreters, including a certified deaf interpreter, for their services to provide additional access.

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Resources for Social-Emotional Webinars

Antia, Shirin D., and Kathryn H. Kreimeyer. Social Competence of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Batten, G., et al. “Factors Associated With Social Interactions Between Deaf Children and Their Hearing Peers: A Systematic Literature Review.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, vol. 19, no. 3, 2013, pp. 285–302., doi:10.1093/deafed/ent052.

Narr, R. Friedman, and M. Kemmery. “The Nature of Parent Support Provided by Parent Mentors for Families With Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Children: Voices From the Start.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, vol. 20, no. 1, 2014, pp. 67–74., doi:10.1093/deafed/enu029.

Norman, Nancy, and Janet R. Jamieson. “Social and Emotional Learning and the Work of Itinerant Teachers of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.” American Annals of the Deaf, vol. 160, no. 3, 2015, pp. 273–288., doi:10.1353/aad.2015.0024.

Oliva, Gina A. Alone in the Mainstream: a Deaf Woman Remembers Public School. Gallaudet University Press, 2005.

Oliva, Gina A., and Linda Risser. Lytle. Turning the Tide: Making Life Better for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Schoolchildren. Gallaudet University Press, 2014.

Xie, Y., Potmesil, M., & Peters, B. (2014). Children who are deaf or hard of hearing in inclusive educational settings: A literature review on interactions with peers. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19(4), 423-437. doi:10.1093/deafed/enu017

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This project is made possible, in part, with a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education using federal funding, CFA 84.027A, Special Education - Grant to States. This project does not necessarily represent the policy of the federal Department of Education or the Minnesota Department of Education. you should not assume endorsement by the federal government or by the Minnesota Department of Education.

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Produced by Infinitec, with funding provided by Metro ECSU and the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing, and shared with MN educators and Infinitec Coalition members with permission. 2019 Copyright metro ECSU All rights reserved.

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