Sound solution to toddler tantrums

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
Mick Ahearne was puzzled when his placid tot suddenly turned into an angry young boy. Then he noticed the hearing difficulties

A few years ago, we noticed our infant son was not forming sounds as well as he should have been. So we were not surprised when his develop-mental check at 18 months revealed a hearing problem. The community medical officer was unconcerned, and assured us there was nothing physically amiss with the hearing mechanism - blocked Eustachian tubes were the cause, and would clear. But the blockages continued in a vicious circle of colds and ear infections.

As a result of his hearing problems, our son's speech development began to slip, and my wife's prediction of a lisp was confirmed over the following months. A series of particularly bad colds leading up to his fourth birthday caused his hearing to worsen, with his behaviour. We put it down to the fact that he was a four-year-old boy feeling his way. But when his teacher said his attention was starting to wander, we began to suspect it might be connected to his hearing problem.

We noticed he had acquired lip-reading skills. As long as you had his direct attention, things were usually OK, but any sort of distraction made communication difficult, at best. But at least we knew he wasn't ignoring us - he just couldn't hear very well.

Although he'd mastered most of the sounds expected of a four-year-old, some - particularly fricatives (f and * ) and affricates (ch as in chair) - were poorly formed, and the health visitor urged us to consider speech therapy.

We were taken aback, not least because another arm of the medical establishment was telling us not to fret.

More worryingly, he began to withdraw and even stopped chattering to himself, let alone to us. He refused to sing or be sung to, and a tantrum was never far away.

After many visits to the GP, we had a referral to a specialist, who immediately recommended grommets. Both ears were done and the effect was immediate and dramatic. Within minutes of coming round, he was overwhelmed by the new experience of perfect hearing, and burst into tears when he flushed the toilet - it was too loud. His behaviour, demeanour and, of course, speech improved enormously. Bath times became a happy sing-song, and he was not only listening, but joining in.

Having watched our son decline from a playful, healthy, amusing child into a miserable, unresponsive malcontent, and to see this decline so dramatically reversed, we came to the tentative conclusion that some inexplicably bad, anti-social behaviour might have its origins in poor hearing.

We tested this theory less than six months later. Our son's hearing deteriorated again after a heavy summer cold, and the bad behaviour, this time with tantrums clearly based in frustration, returned with a vengeance.

Another trip to the ear, nose and throat department told us what we had suspected: one of the grommets had come out. The resulting infection had to be cleared up before any remedial surgery, but we were buoyed by the prospect of a light at the end of the tunnel. Needless to say, within hours of the operation, we had our happy young boy back, mischievous, but not naughty.

Our "investigation" is based on just one child and two incidents. Hardly scientific, but it is food for thought. It's not impossible that some disruptive primary children are, or have been, suffering from a hearing problem that has been gnawing away at them, leading through sadness and frustration to sheer bloody-mindedness.

Speech therapy has a role, but if the cause of the defect is rectified quickly, it may be unnecessary. Anti-social people are not known for their eloquence - but that might be because they don't hear too well.

Mick Ahearne is an IT consultant who lives in south London

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