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Early planning for Jemima's flying start

Photo: Read Jemima's story

With their daughter Jemima, who is moderately deaf, going to school in September, James and Julie have been putting in preparation at home to give her the best start.

James places two glasses of juice on the table where his daughters are bent over their homework, their identical school bags beside them. Jemima (4) looks over at Jessica (6) carefully writing out a sentence in an exercise book, then turns back to her own book and covers the page in big swooping curls.

She sits back smiling; happy with her work. Jemima can’t write, she’s not even started school yet, but James and Julie have encouraged her to get into the routine to help prepare her for a smooth transition when she joins her sister at mainstream primary in September. It’s one of a number of measures they’ve put into place to help give her a head start. “We want her to be as familiar as possible with the idea of school so she won’t be fazed; it will all fall into place for her,” explains Julie.

Jemima was born with a sensorineural hearing loss caused by cytomegalovirus (CMV), a virus that can cause complications during pregnancy, but she wasn’t diagnosed until nearly three years old, by which time she faced a challenge with speech and language. “It was quite a shock, we weren’t prepared to be told ‘she has moderate hearing loss,’” says James. “You don’t know or understand what’s in that world until it faces you. When she was given hearing aids we could see it made a big difference to her; it was very emotional for us.

“Her Teacher of the Deaf (ToD) said Jemima’s ‘speech age’ at three was that of somebody much younger than herself. She gave us lots of ideas and information about how we could help her develop speech.”

"Jemima’s ‘speech age’ at three was that of somebody much younger than herself."

James and Julie realised there was a lot of work to do to prepare Jemima for school. They went on one of our Starting School: Education Rights and Responsibilities weekends, and also to one of our technology weekends. “It was very useful and Jemima loved seeing other children with ‘hearers’ as she calls her hearing aids,” says James. “The weekend empowered us and made us better equipped to have a discussion with teachers about the support she needed.”

When Jessica started school, they moved Jemima to the school nursery from her private one with the support of the ToD. “It’s much more like school as it’s structured, with rules and set times for break, so it’ll be less of a culture change when Jemima starts school and she’ll be resilient,” says Julie. “And she already attends school breakfast and after-school clubs with Jessica while we’re at work so she’s even more familiar with the school.”

James and Julie have been building a relationship with the school way in advance of Jemima’s September start. They’ve had a meeting with the headteacher, set up by the ToD, about Jemima’s needs and the resources available to support her. Deaf awareness training is also being arranged for school staff by the ToD.

“The school has a very positive ethos around deafness, as they’ve had deaf pupils before, although this can cause some problems as the previous deaf pupils were profoundly deaf, so their needs were different,” says James. “The school were very supportive and suggested signing to Jemima – we had to explain she doesn’t use sign language and try to give them a more nuanced understanding of her needs.”

Jemima currently gets weekly visits at nursery from her ToD. She helped get Jemima a radio aid with the school, which has meant she doesn’t have to be at the front and can sit with her friends. She’s still a long way behind her peers with her speech, which is a concern for James and Julie. So far she’s had just one speech and language therapy assessment and the couple are hoping she’ll get regular sessions. “She babbles away with complete confidence, unaware that no-one can understand,” says James.

"She’ll be so used to it all by the time she starts."

“It does worry us – being unable to communicate effectively, as well as not being able to hear properly, means school will be a challenge for her. That’s why we’ve tried to put as much as possible into place, so she isn’t fazed by the transition.”

Jemima’s deafness has fluctuated from moderate to severe in the last year but James and Julie are hoping that with technology – her hearing aids and a radio aid, which they hope she’ll be able to take to school with her – she’ll be able to hear and her speech will progress.

“We’re lucky she has an older sister already at the school – I think this will be one of the things that helps her the most,” says James. “But I’d say to any parent it’s important to visit the school, talk to teachers, rehearse the whole routine, the morning walk, the homework, everything. It’s about managing the transition.

“She’ll be so used to it all by the time she starts. We try to build her confidence and encourage her to be positive and open about her deafness. We’re confident she’ll manage well and be resilient. She’s very strong-willed, and we think her character – mischievous, confident and sociable – will help see her through.” ­