It wasn’t the first time Haley Rishel’s class helped her read “The Rainbow Fish” aloud, but as she turned each page, the hearing impaired students remembered what they had learned.
In unison, they described the rainbow fish learning to find happiness and self-expression by sharing its shiny and multi-colored scales.
As Rishel reads aloud, she wears a headset connected to a tall speaker that amplifies sound in the small room filled with toys, storybooks, a mock kitchen and table for group activities. The sound system helps eliminate background noise and sends the signal to students’ personal FM speakers.
“No matter where kids are in the classroom or outside, they’re always hearing me like I’m six inches away from them,” she said.
All of Rishel’s students are deaf or hearing impaired. She instructs about 16 children up to age 5 in listening and spoken language to help them better communicate and to prepare them for elementary school.
Expression through speech
“There was big need for services for kids ages 3 to 5 to get them ready for kindergarten,” Rishel said. “All of our kids have some sort of hearing loss, from mild to profound.”
She said all of the children she helps have some form of hearing assistance like cochlear implants or hearing aids.
Rishel is an early interventionist in deaf education for the University of Southern Mississippi Children’s Center for Communication and Development. She provides education, strategy and communication techniques for deaf children and their families across the six coastal counties.
The program in Long Beach is an extension of USM’s Education for the Deaf program under the College of Health’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences.
I thought she was crazy...But it has helped them succeed so much. We talk, talk, talk. You’re describing every single thing in your house and what you’re doing at all times.
Rishel hosts classes on the Gulf Park campus for the older children about twice a week, but she spends most of her time working with kids and their parents inside their home.
“Therapy with me one to four hours a week is not going to get them talking and listening, so I work with parents to develop listening and speaking strategies in the home to focus on listening and spoken language,” she said.
Rishel said she spends time watching what goes on naturally in each child’s home to develop a plan.
“We do a lot of teaching parents how to develop natural routines, being very repetitive in each routine,” she said.
For example, Rishel said, if a parent is picking a child up, that motion should be spoken aloud each time it happens.
“Every time you pick that child up, that child is hearing up, up , up,” she said. “Being really repetitive in the natural routine is important.”
Helping at home
Michelle Costenbader of Gulfport has daughters who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Azlynn and Alyson Costenbader have a genetic condition called Pendred Syndrome, which causes enlarged vestibular aqueduct (EVA) and progressive and fluctuating hearing loss.
Azlynn, 6, has cochlear implants and Alyson, 4, will likely get them in the future. For now, Alyson uses hearing aids.
Both girls work with Rishel in their home and in the classroom. When Rishel initiated the first home visit with Azlynn, Constenbader said it was different but comforting.
“Everything she does helps, not only the kids but helps the parents,” Costenbader said. “She teaches the parent to continue what she’s doing here (in the classroom).”
When Rishel first told Costenbader she needed to repeat everything over and over again for every little daily movement, she said she was taken aback.
“I thought she was crazy. I tell her all the time I thought she was crazy,” Costenbader said. “But it has been what has helped them succeed so much. We talk, talk, talk. You’re describing every single thing in your house and what you’re doing at all times.”
Azlynn will start first grade at a private elementary school in the fall, and Costenbader said her daughter “is flourishing.”
“She’s learning new skills every day. She doesn’t let her hearing loss affect her.”
Therapy with me one to four hours a week is not going to get them talking and listening, so I work with parents to develop listening and speaking strategies in the home to focus on listening and spoken language.
In Rishel’s classroom, children “do very typical pre-school activities,” she said. They go over the months and days on a calendar, sing songs and use context clues to answer who came to school. Then Rishel works on literacy through reading and spoken word.
“I always do a book for one to two weeks,” she said. “The kids answer questions throughout the book to develop literacy and get them ready for kindergarten.”
Toward the end of story time Tuesday, Alyson got very excited when she remembered the rainbow fish shared a scale with tiniest fish on the page. She let out a screech, kissing the fish. But it was another student’s turn to speak, and she got upset that Alyson took her turn.
“It’s OK, Kyleen,” Rishel told the 3-year-old. “Use your words. Tell Alyson it’s your turn.”
Later, 4-year-old Cooper Cartes of Biloxi told Rishel why it was important to share with your friends.
After Rishel put away “The Rainbow Fish,” the students lined up for a bathroom break and had play time before language practice and a snack.
USM offers free master’s program
Constenbader said that Rishel and the program through USM have helped her daughters exponentially. They love going to Rishel’s classroom and participating with other deaf students.
“I’m very happy the program is here and very satisfied with Haley,” Constenbader said. “With the program being here, I think it’s amazing. To have this for all these children is great, especially if you want your child to learn listening and spoken language.”
Rishel has a bachelor’s degree from USM and a master’s degree that specializes in listening and spoken language from Fort Bonne University in St. Louis.
“Because of the change of technology right now, hearing aids are getting so much better,” Rishel said. “The technology is so great. A lot of children have access to hearing that did not have access to this 20 years ago. We need more people in the field who specialize in listening and spoken language development.”