So, there’s a deaf student in your class or your school for the first time. Congratulations! You’ve been given a great opportunity.

You may feel a bit overwhelmed, uncertain, or (I hope) excited! Maybe your only experience with deafness is watching Nyle DiMarco on Dancing With the Stars. Or you read that crazy story about the deaf kid who didn’t know people can hear farts.

Wondering how you’re going to teach a deaf student, and do it well? Take a deep breath. We’ve got you covered. Read on for expert tips and effective strategies to help you rock this new challenge.

1.Understand what “deaf” means. And what “Deaf” means.

Confused? Let’s define “deaf” as communicating primarily by non-auditory means, because of atypical hearing. In other words, a deaf person is someone who doesn’t hear enough to communicate through speaking and listening alone, even with amplification. (We’ll discuss hard-of-hearing students another day. Different strategies.) You may see the word written as “deaf,” which refers strictly to the level of a person’s hearing. When written with an uppercase letter, “Deaf” shows a social or cultural identification.

2. Learn the student’s communication system.    

Don’t panic! You don’t have to become fluent. Your goal is to break the ice. Most deaf students will use American Sign Language (ASL) .However, I’ve seen deaf students in the United States use a variety of communication systems including ASL, Manually Coded English, the Rochester Method (fingerspelling, lots of fingerspelling!), Cued Speech, and even British Sign Language. As soon as possible, find out what system(s) your student uses. Learn a friendly greeting and several frequently-used phrases. (Your student’s interpreter and Teacher of the Deaf are great resources for this information.)

Here are some suggestions:

-Nice to meet you!
-See you later.
-Thank you.

You won’t become an interpreter overnight. That’s fine. Your student will love that you’re communicating directly. And your class will see that you respect this student and his/her language.

3. Know the team and use your resources.

Your student will most likely have an interpreter and a Teacher of the Deaf. (Some students have captionists, but this is much less common.)

An interpreter’s job is to facilitate ALL communication that is accessible to typical students in the classroom. Most interpreters are also very knowledgeable about Deaf culture and communication issues. Many now have a bachelor’s degree or have been through a college-level interpreter training program. They are members of the educational team. But, they are not monitors, teachers, or behavior managers. Their responsibility is to interpret.

Your student will also have a case manager. This is most likely a Teacher of the Deaf . This is the person who makes sure that the student is working toward goals identified on the Individual Education Plan (IEP). He or she will also make sure that all required services are being provided. Make sure you know how to get in touch with your student’s case manager. Communicate any questions or concerns about how to accommodate your student’s needs.

A Teacher of the Deaf can answer many questions, such as:

  • How do I give a spelling test since the student can’t sound out words?
  • This reading test has a phonics component; what should I do?
  • What should we do during center time when we have headphone activities?
  • My student’s parents are also Deaf; what’s the best way to maintain communication with them?
  • Why does my interpreter have that look on his face when I read Dr. Seuss books? (Try it sometime!)

Your deaf student may also have a language therapist, an audiologist, a counselor, a special assistant, and other service providers. And of course, parents can be great resources. So keep in touch with your team. Don’t go it alone!

4. Know a bit about Deaf culture.

Did you know that many Deaf people applaud by raising hands in the air and shaking them? Or that it’s totally acceptable in a gathering of Deaf people for someone to flip the light switch on and off, or stomp on the floor to get attention? Deafness is a culture, complete with behaviors sometimes very intriguing to hearing people. The Deaf community has its own jokes, history, celebrities, causes, institutions, and viewpoints. Do a bit of research or pick up a copy of Deaf in America or Mother Father Deaf . Celebrate the contributions and achievements of the Deaf community. Let your student see you reading books or articles about the Deaf experience. Ask about something you learned. Compare your new knowledge to your student’s personal experience. You’ll show appreciation for students’ differences.

5. Be inclusive. Use visual communication.

Deaf students get TIRED. They watch the interpreter for your message. They study the board for new concepts and processes. They read books and notes. They look around for clues about the environment. (What are the other students doing? Has the bell rung yet? Is it raining outside?) They are using their eyes to process mountains of language.

How can you help? Use lots of visuals that don‘t require much explanation.
Technology is your friend here. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. And a video with quality captions is priceless. Take a break from lecturing and use a game, role-play, or skit to make your point. Assign projects that are light on language and rich in visual information (posters, videos, models). Everything doesn’t have to be about reading and writing. And on that note…..

6. Understand the language challenge.

For students who use ASL, English is a second language with a different syntax and grammar. An interpreter will present the information you teach in the language your student will understand. The student may fully grasp the concepts taught, but struggle to demonstrate that knowledge through written assignments and tests. The IEP will likely contain accommodations for this, like assistance with reading and writing assignments. But the student will still be working to improve English literacy skills.

Remember to grade content and grammar separately. Work with the Teacher of the Deaf to decide what’s appropriate, if necessary. He or she can also work directly with the student on translating or proofreading written work from ASL to academic English. If the TOD doesn’t have academic support time with the student, then a teaching assistant, English teacher, or language therapist may be available to help the student edit written responses.

Go easy on corrections. Too many can discourage a student who isn’t on grade level for writing yet. Tackle a few at a time and let others go, unless you know the student is capable of producing error-free work.

7. Be realistic. Be expectant.

Lastly, use your teacher senses to set reasonable expectations. Do you feel this student is giving you his or her best work? Communicate your perceptions. Let the student know if you think the work can be better. Or that you see his or her effort and know it’s good.

Deaf students, like hearing students, have a range of abilities, intelligence quotients, skills, and talents. They also may or may not have cognitive or other sensory challenges. Remember that there are deaf entrepreneurs, politicians, actors, scientists, administrators…. The list goes on. Don’t pity a deaf student or accept low-quality work on the basis of deafness alone. Empower your students through your high expectations. Accommodate as necessary. Consult with the team when you’re not sure what’s realistic. But always hold the student accountable. Your student will ultimately come to appreciate being treated with this respect.

So there you have it. Your cheat sheet for a great experience with your deaf student. Remember, this student was placed in your class because the IEP team who knows his or her abilities decided it’s a good fit. Trust yourself. Use your teacher intuition and these tips and have a great year!

Have you had a deaf student in your general education class? What other tips do you have? Add your words of wisdom in the comments. Or share a question, concern, or experience.