Why Do Children Tune Out What They Don't Want To Hear?

If your child can't hear everything you say, the information you give can't be processed to the desired conclusion.  Is it selective hearing or hearing loss? 

The answer, at first, appears pretty obvious.  However, the obvious trivializes genuine hearing loss.  Hearing skill is essential to everyone, regardless of age!

It affects our well-being in so many areas of life:  Speaking, listening, thinking, and learning. Good hearing skill influences how easily children learn and develop. 

A child with an acquired hearing loss, through problems that come and go (ear infections, congestion, fluid in the middle ear, noise levels), may have a hard time communicating. Half-heard instructions have a direct influence on the quality of a kindergarten child’s learning

If the instructions don’t make sense, they become a source of befuddlement. The child may ignore them.

Anxiety, frustration, and loss of confidence are possible outcomes. As a result, a child may isolate himself by withdrawing from conversations.

How do you answer a half-heard question…especially if the class laughs at your answer? Wouldn’t that make you a little bit hesitant to answer other questions?

No-one wants to be ridiculed!


Hearing As A Learning Method

Hearing is a very important learning method. It is a principal way to learn in school. Listening and speaking are key to school experience and success.

A child may not know that her hearing skill is different from yours. If you, as parent or teacher, don’t know that it is … the outcomes are different from those anticipated … in conversation and in direction-giving.

It is not unreasonable to suspect that selective hearing is at play. Children tune out what they don’t want to hear. However, the child may not be hearing everything you say and, therefore, can’t process the information to the desired conclusion.

You may also conclude that your child doesn’t hear you because he is so focused on what he is doing. He really isn’t ignoring you. So … you figure you need to speak louder to get his attention. On the other hand, you may choose to get closer, instead, as a more effective way to get his attention.


The Brain Has to Learn to Hear.


Functional hearing skill develops over time. Out of all the sounds we hear in our living environment only 43 sounds carry meaning in English. Some languages may have more, others a few less. That means every child needs to construct the meaningful sound system by filtering out all non-language sounds.

The ear is a wonderfully dynamic system. Sensitive, it can hear a soft whisper as well as the loud boom of a base drum or an explosion. It is the first sense to develop during the gestation period … at about 4.5 months.

If your child is born with good sound reflexes, her hearing skill development should progress, normally. In most children, it does.


Hearing Skill and The Effect of Ear Infections


Ear infections have a profound effect on the development of learning to hear and on language development …especially if they occur frequently before school age.

Ear infections, congestion, and fluid in the middle ear may result in low quality hearing even though hearing, in general, may be fine. Hearing skill distortions may linger on … well beyond the disappearance of the symptoms.

Abnormal Hearing and What It Feels Like


How is abnormal hearing defined? A minimal loss of 25 decibels db is the accepted benchmark.

Here’s a little experiment for you to do to find out what a 25 db loss is like.

Turn on the TV to a new channel. Set the volume to your comfort level. Stick your index finger in each ear… just as your child would do… when he doesn’t want to hear what you are saying.

How well do you hear the TV? Can you make out what is being said?

Now…turn around so your back faces the TV. That prevents you from lip-reading the speaker. Did you know that we start lip-reading at age 2.5?

How well do you hear now – even with great effort?

That’s an example of the effect of an ear infection.

However poorly you hear the TV, 25 db is slightly WORSE than hearing with your ears plugged.


Imagine trying to process what the teacher is saying when you have an ear infection.

Imagine how well you would learn under those conditions.

Imagine being told you're not listening…you're not paying attention.

How would you feel?

What message would you give yourself?

Is this scenario overly dramatic?  Perhaps!  However, it is based on a fact sheet presented at the 1995 Academy of Audiology Convention by K. Anderson, M.Ed.


Why Is This Important Information?

It's important to be aware of the extent of hearing loss found in a typical ear infection!

This is a fact not clearly understood by parents and teachers. It is even less understood if you, the parent or teacher, have never had an ear infection!

The following statistics appear in Anderson’s Fact Sheet, 1995:

Among preschoolers, two-thirds have had at least one ear infection. Sixteen percent have 6 or more.

Chronic ear problems persist in 10 percent of preschoolers … even with good medical attention.

Eighty-nine percent of hyperactive children have 3 or more episodes of ear problems and 74 percent have had 10 or more. Of those on medication for hyperactivity, 94 percent have had 3 or more episodes of ear problems and 68 percent have had 10 or more!

Children with hearing loss only in one ear (30 db or greater) have 10 times the risk for failing a grade in school. Almost 50 percent have failed one or more grades or are receiving support services in school.


Hearing and Thought-Processing


Hearing skill affects thought processing.

Following directions, getting confused when there are many steps to follow, understanding longer, complicated sentences...are all examples where hearing deficiencies affect working memory.

If pieces are missing, your child can’t possibly get the work done the way the teacher wants it done. Most often, this is thought to be a learning problem, or a behavior problem, rather than a hearing problem.

Children with hearing skill problems often rely on other students to fill in the gaps. If the work is satisfactory, the problem remains undetected and uncorrected.

These children become dependent learners. They depend on others to listen for them and to show them what to do. To become an independent learner is the most important goal.

What happens when they get to high school or on the work site? Huge implications!


If your child is experiencing any of these difficulties…

a full hearing skill investigation is warranted. The problem could be hearing related.

An audiogram will tell you your child’s hearing levels. It will tell you if hearing loss is present.

Most often an audiogram will show that hearing is good even though there is classroom evidence that there must be a hearing skill problem. Without solid evidence, the problem is left untreated.

So…when the audiogram results are given, both teacher and parent conclude that the child’s learning problems are NOT hearing related.


In rare instances, the teacher is convinced that the root problem IS hearing related. The parent is pressured to get a second opinion.

If the hearing test administrator doesn’t ask for a history of
Ear infections
Colds, flu
Learning problems
Speech quality
Memory for digit span
hearing hasn’t been fully investigated.

If hearing is suspected, parents and teachers need to insist on giving this information to the hearing specialist. And…if the audiogram results are in the normal range, ask what else can be done…and by whom. Ask for a referral to an individual who has FAAA after the name to find out if there are middle ear and inner ear issues.

Our ability to speak is based on our ability to hear.


We Speak the Way We Hear


We use language to communicate our understanding of information…to ask a question. We use hearing to learn about the people and cultures of the world…to learn math and science…to learn to read.

Hearing skill difficulties may filter out sounds that carry meaning. The sounds may be replaced with sounds that have no meaning…or distort the meaning intended.

The end result is that a child with such difficulties won’t understand what is being spoken. Children often resort to guessing what’s going on from incomplete bits of information.

You may need to repeat everything more than once to be understood. If so, more time and effort are needed to carry on a conversation. We experience this with aging parents, whose hearing is deteriorating.


What Are Some of the Effects of Hearing Skill Loss in School Performance?

In reading, it is fairly obvious. Learning to read requires a child to make the connection between the written and spoken forms of the same word. Hearing skill distortions have an effect on progress.


How would that affect learning to read using phonics or phonemic awareness?

Key information may not be heard and understood. Listening and speaking could be affected. Information processing and thinking could be affected by partially heard information.

There may be difficulty organizing thought and expressing it clearly in speaking and in writing. Language patterns might reflect immaturity…where all the sentences follow a basic pattern of an actor and an action on an object. For example: The girl hit the ball.

Social skills and interests may be affected. How can interest be maintained without full hearing?

A hearing impaired child is likely to tune out when required to listen to a story being read to the class. This is likely to occur in a dramatic reading where the variations of stress, pitch, intonation, and loudness are in play.

You may notice that your child leaves off the endings of words…endings that tell us “more than one,” or the past tense marker, “-ed.”

Spelling is bound to be affected, especially if “sound it out” was emphasized in reading instruction.


Children whose auditory processing difficulties are not identified, or recognized, are thought of as:

Behavior disordered

A child who appears distracted or withdrawn may be signaling a mild hearing loss.

Have your child’s hearing skill tested even if you are only mildly concerned. Young children should have a full test by an audiologist.

If your child is school-aged, he may be able to have a quick hearing test at school.

That test is usually administered under the best conditions. That is, the setting is in the quietest area available.

The results may be normal. However, that doesn’t reflect how your child is hearing in the classroom! It doesn’t reflect how your child is processing the information received.

Hearing impaired children don’t get enough information for problem-solving. They can’t retrieve information to use it effectively.

They lose coherence. What they are hearing doesn’t make sense to them.

The long-term effect of hearing loss may lead to serious future consequences. The skills needed were not developed, adequately.

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