School can be tough at times for all children, but for many deaf children and young people it can be particularly hard. On top of the same challenges that everyone faces, such as meeting homework deadlines and working out if that girl or guy fancies you, many deaf children and young people also have to contend with having to work that bit harder to follow and understand what their teacher is saying and keep up with what their mates are chatting about.
Sadly, for some, the risk of bullying can make life at school extra difficult. Research has shown that deaf students are often more vulnerable to bullying than other children. Nearly two thirds of deaf young people reported having been bullied because of their deafness, through an online poll* on the National Deaf Children's Society's website for deaf young people - The Buzz.
Sharing a joke with classmates or joining in the break time banter might be taken for granted by hearing people. But it's thought that the risk of 'breakdowns' in social communication, or looking 'different' because a child is wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants, can end up marking out deaf children and young people as 'different' and hence more vulnerable. Elsewhere, social media offers a great opportunity to overcome communication barriers but comes with its dark side of potentially exposing deaf children and young people to cyberbullying.
I grew up deaf and went to a mainstream school in a small village in Leicestershire. Fortunately I feel very lucky never to have had any major problems with bullying. I could be happy about this but it's always struck me as unfair - whether a deaf child enjoys school and avoids bullying should not be down to luck.
Everyone - teachers, school staff and parents can help reduce the risk of bullying. The National Deaf Children's Society has produced a pack of resources to support all those with a responsibility for ensuring the well-being of deaf students, including deaf young people themselves.
The resources explain why deaf children might be more at risk from bullying and the simple things that everyone can do to prevent this from happening. For example, my school had lots of deaf awareness training and I was surrounded by a good bunch of friends who understood that I liked being able to chat at lunchtime in a quiet area.
I also had lots of opportunities to develop my speech and language skills and access to some great equipment in the classroom (known as radio aids) which amplified everything and meant that I could usually follow what was going on. I also had lots of work done on my language and communication skills. I like to think also that my parents imbued me with a sense of confidence and assertiveness to 'own' my deafness and to stand up for myself if there were ever any problems.
That's not to say I never had any problems at all. I remember one time that some kids would keep "whispering" to me or covering their mouths when they spoke, knowing that I wouldn't understand. Fortunately too, my teachers spotted this happening and clamped down on it immediately.
It's important that everyone is vigilant to the signs that a child might be being bullied, just as some of my teachers were. Many of the signs are the same for deaf children as for all children - such as disruptive behaviour, not wanting to go to school and changes in appearance, for example. But where deaf children and young people are involved, there can be some added considerations. One of the key signs that any child is being bullied is that they become withdrawn and uncommunicative. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a failure to pick up bullying in deaf children because this kind of behaviour is sometimes attributed to their being deaf, rather than as a warning sign of wider problems.
The National Deaf Children's Society's new resources include a set of creative colourful postcards that deaf young people can pick up to quickly remind themselves of what they should or shouldn't do in a difficult situation. Empowering deaf children and young people is absolutely essential. Deaf children and young people may need some help to understand what cyberbullying is and to know what to do if it crops up. We can't always be there to protect them, but we can give them the tools and confidence to protect themselves.
By taking a few simple steps, we can all minimise the risk of bullying and make sure that deaf children and young people have happy memories and experiences at school and leave as confident adults.
More information on the National Deaf Children's Society's resources to prevent and tackle bullying, can be found here.
*The National Deaf Children's Society commissioned a poll in 2012 on its young people's website The Buzz, asking deaf young people their views on bullying. The poll received more than 600 respondents.