When working with students who are deaf or hard of hearing, teachers might notice that the students may struggle to hear in the presence of background noise even while wearing hearing aids and cochlear implants. Hearing Assistive Technologies (e.g. FM/digital wireless and audio distribution systems) are a means of addressing this issue.
The use of wireless technology provides a multitude of benefits to students with and without hearing loss, as well as to teachers, but mastering the use of this technology takes some understanding and practice. These systems come in many forms and may include classroom audio distribution systems (CADS) and soundfield systems that are similar to PA systems in that they provide amplification in sound and a boost for everyone, as well as personal systems coupled to hearing aids and cochlear implants.
Teachers may be expected to balance the use of multiple systems and microphones within a single classroom. The classroom may be equipped with a sound field system that provides benefits to all listeners. At the same time, one or more students may be outfitted with personal systems fit to their hearing aids or cochlear implants. These systems may require the use of different microphones and the benefits will only be apparent to the students wearing the equipment.
What are the benefits of FM & other wireless systems?
If a classroom is equipped with a soundfield or CADS system, there is an improved signal to noise ratio for everyone listening. Basically, it becomes easier to hear the person who is talking over all of the background noise. This is much like the use of a PA system and microphone in a noisy gym during an assembly. Without the microphone, hearing the speaker in the back of the room would be nearly impossible. The use of the microphone, however, makes it quite easy for everyone to hear the speaker. In much the same way, a CADS or soundfield system makes it easier for all students in the classroom to hear over the noise coming from classmates, squeaky chairs, and loud ventilation systems. Additionally, teachers experience benefits in the form of reduced vocal strain and a decrease in need for repetitions.
The benefits of personal FM systems, though not as widespread throughout the class, are often even greater for children with hearing loss. Personal FM systems cannot be heard by every listener in the room. Rather, they send signals directly from the teacher’s microphone and transmitter directly to the student’s receiver, which is typically attached to either a hearing aid or cochlear implant. Personal FM systems act as a means of reducing the speaker to listener distance, thus improving the signal-to-noise ratio. In effect, they act as though the speaker’s mouth is within inches of the listener’s ear. This makes it much easier for the student to hear the signal over background noise.
Essentially, these systems improve classroom acoustic environments by improving signal to noise ratios. Hearing aids and cochlear implants help children who are deaf and hard of hearing to hear. FM & other wireless systems help them sort through all of the noise to focus on the key signal where their attention should be directed. They make it easier for children to hear what they are supposed to hear in the midst of classroom chaos and noise.
When should FM & other wireless systems be used?
An easy answer to this question is that the system/s should be used any time a student is supposed to listen to and attend to one speaker. In classrooms with younger students, this might include large group activities such as circle time or story time. In classrooms with older students, this might include lectures.
A key point to remember when using these systems in the classroom is that the teacher does not need to be “the keeper of the microphone.” Students need access to spoken language from a variety of sources. In classrooms where the teacher is the primary speaker, it is appropriate for the teacher to wear the microphone the majority of the time. If, however, students are breaking off into small groups or participating in class discussions, the teacher must share the microphone with the other speakers. Passing the microphone from one person to another not only helps children to hear the person who is talking, it also helps direct their attention to the source of the sound so they can follow conversations more successfully.
When should FM & other wireless systems NOT be used?
Equally important to the understanding of when to use the microphone is developing an understanding of when NOT to use it. It would be easy for a teacher to get into the habit of switching on a microphone in the morning and switching it off at the end of the day. While this might seem like a great habit and it may work well for large group lessons, it places the child in the position of overhearing everything the teacher says throughout the entire day.
In preschool and early elementary classrooms, the system should probably not be used during independent play and center times, unless the teacher who is wearing the microphone is playing directly with the child wearing the system and no other children are also synched or connected to the same channel or network. Alternatives to this model may be discussed with educational audiologists if multiple transmitters are available for use in classrooms with more than one student with hearing loss. If one child is reading a book and another child is playing in the kitchen area, it is not likely that they both need to hear the same message. In classrooms with older students, the system should probably not be used during independent work times when the teacher circulates and provides one-on-one or small group help, unless the teacher is talking directly to the child wearing the system. Basically, the system should not be used during any time when the teacher does not want the student with hearing loss to hear everything he or she is saying.
How is effective device use managed?
With a little bit of planning and practice, quality system use can be established in all classrooms. Teachers may choose to start by breaking down their routines and identifying the times when they are the key speakers and they want students to hear everything they say. These are ideal times to start implementing FM & other wireless system use. They might next identify times when they share the role of primary speaker with another adult or the other students in the classroom. These are great times to practice sharing the responsibility for device use by passing the microphone to each person who takes a turn speaking. Finally, teachers can look at the remainder of their schedules and identify how to manage the system during small group and independent work times. During some of these times, if there is not a primary speaker, it may be appropriate to mute the system or turn it off. Including notes and reminders in lesson plans can help teachers to get started on integrating quality device use into their everyday routines.
Need more information?
For a summary of this article, please see:
Using Hearing Assistance Technology (HAT) in the Classroom.
For information about how to manage HAT use in classrooms with younger students, please see:
Guidelines for Appropriate Use in Classrooms with Younger Students.
For information about how to manage FM use in classrooms with older students, please see:
Guidelines for Appropriate Use in Classrooms with Older Students.
If you are interested in information about how to incorporate FM use at home, please see:
Home Use of HAT.
Bess, F. H., & Humes, L.E. (2003). Audiology: The fundamentals (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Lippencott Williams & Wilkins.
Cole, E.B., & Flexer, C. (2007). Children with hearing loss: Developing listening and talking: Birth to six. San Diego: Plural Publishing Inc.