What to do when your child appears to be deaf - and you know that's not the issue?? A reader gave us this dilemma a little while back:
My 21-month-old daughter ignores me when I call her name. Usually, I am trying to get her attention on me to ask her a question, or make a request, or get her to come over to me to, for example, give her a sippy cup or change her diaper. I usually have to say her name a number of times. Obviously, I am not asking how to get her attention when she is deeply involved in something (building blocks, or watching TV -- I know better than that). Just general "look at me please" attention. Also, I worry because sometimes when I have to get her to stop doing something (for example, walking too far in our yard, which ends in a rocky hillside), I call out, "Stop!" and she doesn't. I am sure it's not a hearing issue.
What is the best way to get a child's attention? I don't want to raise my voice as I repeat her name. And it scares me when I say, "Stop" or "wait" and she keeps on trucking!
Some children will gaze at you in wide-eyed wonder whenever you whisper their name. Stop in their tracks, make eye contact, await your words. I think those kids exist only in Hallmark fantasies, but they sure are nice, aren't they?
While attending is something a minutes-old infant can do, attending on command does not come naturally. It is taught. It's taught in a thousand happy interactions, each time a parent speaks to their baby and smiles adoringly, laughs when baby looks towards them.
By 21 months, this little girl certainly knows her name. So how do you get her to attend to it? Most learning at this age is best accomplished by making a game of it. Ask yourself some quesitons. What is the behaviour I'm after? (Be as specific as possible.) How can we make a game of this?
In this case, what the mother wants is: the child to stop and make eye contact the first time mom speaks her name. Mom is careful not to be unreasonable about this: she knows that when the child is heavily involved in a task, she may not hear. (If you need the child's attention when they're very occupied, the best way is simply to go to them, get down on their level, and touch them while speaking their name. But you all know that!) However, the majority of the time, it is reasonable to expect a child this age to respond to their name the first (or maybe the second) time it's spoken.
If you find yourself having to repeat the child's name half a dozen times, every time? If they never look at you until you're so exasperated you have to shout? You have a child who's trained you!
Let's see our goals. I want the child to make eye contact with me. What's a fun way to get eye contact? I'll bet you all have one, but you've never thought of it as a teaching tool. A couple spring to my mind - hide and seek, and peek-a-boo. Let's go with peek-a-boo. Now, how to turn this simple game into an Experience of Learning?
Let's see. You take your turn, then let baby take hers. When she takes her turn, call her name in delighted tones when she pops her hands off her eyes. Play it that way for a few rounds, and then start saying her name first. Call it out in the same tones you'd use for "peek!" (Or whatever word/phrase you use in your family version of the game!) If her name sounds like part of the game, she will probably respond by popping those eyes open and looking right at you. Bingo! Just the behaviour you're after!
Then you bridge the gap a bit between this game and non-play. "I see your eyes! Do you see mummy's eyes? Eyes!" Then play it over and over. Each time she opens her eyes to your calling her name, exclaim about seeing her eyes. In this way, she'll learn what "look at my eyes" means.
Then, next time you call her and she doesn't look up, you can walk over to her, tap her shoulder or take her chin gently in your hand. "When mummy says your name, you need to look at my eyes." Smile into her eyes. Now she knows what it means, and she's learning a new application for it.
Of course, you can make a game of this, too. When she knows what "look at my eyes" means, you can practice that, as a game. Turn her away from you. Call her name. She spins around and looks at your eyes. Throw it out at her at random times in the day, and whenever she remembers, laugh and clap. If she doesn't, your reminder should be light-hearted. "Oops! You forgot the eye game! Let's try it again." Keep it light and fun, though. If it's not fun, if it becomes too intense, she'll resist, and it will become a flashpoint for a power struggle. If you see resistance to the game, stop immediately.
And of course, it's only fair that she do the same for you. When she calls out "mumma! dadda!" you
have to stop and look at her! Eventually, when you call her name, you can use just the word "eyes" in a cautionary tone. A simple reminder cue word. "Emmet? Eyes?"
I use a similar technique for teaching them to stop when called. When out in public, I practice with the tots the "freeze" game. In a safe area, I let them wander away from me, and then I'll call out "freeze!" If they manage to freeze, I cheer and clap and make a big to-do. If they don't, it's "oops! you didn't freeze!" and we try it again. At 21 months, though, it's unlikely that a child will be tremendously reliable. Their attention span is short, and their impulse control very limited. At this point, the game is only intended to teach a concept that will be applied more rigorously in a few months. You're laying the groundwork for the future.
So that rocky hillside in your yard? For the next little while, it'll be up to you to keep her away from it, generally by simply stopping her and lifting her away. She's probably a little too young to be relied upon to respond to a solely verbal cue to keep her out of trouble! She'll manage it part of the time, but not 100% - and that hill probably requires 100%.