Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of Lehman College, City University of New York.
A recent report on the impacts of background noise on children’s speech and learning referenced a study linking activity in the auditory cortex to a child’s difficulty in identifying sounds in a noisy environment. Another recent study linked noise to lower math scores in classrooms.
Interestingly, it was over 40 years ago that a student in my environmental psychology class informed me that her son and other children attending school near an elevated train track in Upper Manhattan were having difficulty learning in the class. She asked if I could help with the noise problem because I had been lecturing on the effects of noise on behavior.
I asked the principal of the school referred to above, which was located about 220 feet from the elevated train track, if I could examine the reading scores of the children in classrooms next to the tracks with those of children on the quiet side of the building. He provided four years of reading score data. I also sat in on some of the classes to experience the sounds and to observe the reactions of the students and teachers as the trains passed.
Not only was it difficult for the students to hear and listen to teachers as the trains passed, but the teachers shouted above the noises and at times simply stopped talking. My co-author and I found that the reading scores of the children in the lower grades adjacent to the trains lagged about three months behind their peers on the quiet side. This difference rose to one year when reading scores of the 6th-graders were compared. Yes, passing train noise impeded learning!
This 1975 study resulted in a huge reaction from the media, public officials and the community. The surrounding publicity enabled me to approach both the Transit Authority and the Board of Education to ask for some action to abate the noise. The Transit Authority agreed to test out rubber padding to reduce elevated track noise on the tracks adjacent to the school, and the Board of Education agreed to install noise abatement materials in several of the classrooms adjacent to the tracks. When these abatements were in place, a public official asked me to return to the school to test if these abatements, which did lower the noise level in the classrooms, impacted reading scores as well. This 1981 study found that with noise reduction, children on both sides of the building were reading at the same level. Yes, lowering noise levels in classrooms improves learning.
The research that followed these two studies also found that noise impairs learning in the classroom as well as speech acquisition and cognition. The Federal Aviation Administration has spent hundreds of millions of dollars abating noise in classrooms impacted by aircraft noise in a program that requires schools to apply for such funding.
Today, we generally accept the statement that noise can impede a child’s speech acquisition, cognition and learning ability. However, have we done all we could to lower the decibel level in classrooms? Recently, parents whose children attended a school in Queens, New York, located exceptionally close to the elevated tracks, complained that the noise from the tracks disrupted classroom learning during the warm months when windows had to be opened. The parents asked for air conditioners to be installed. I joined the parents and local public officials in this request and provided them with the results of my studies on noise and learning, as well as the more recent research.
Only after demonstrations and protests did the air conditioners get installed in late 2016. Hopefully, the air conditioners selected were not that noisy. I am sure there are other schools throughout the country that have not yet been protected from road, rail or air traffic noise.
Classrooms are also impacted by noises within the school. Cafeterias can be noisy and so too can gymnasiums. Noise can also enter the classrooms from hallways. One parent complained to me that the gym at her child’s school was located near the library, and the children found it difficult to read in the library. I urge architects, engineers and urban planners to consider potential sources of noise in their design plans.
Designers and architects planning schools should consider acoustic tiles for ceilings as well as quieter chairs and tables. Should a gymnasium and a library be situated side by side? Doors should be designed with materials that would make it less likely for those passing in the hallways to be heard in the classrooms. Noise levels of cooling and heating units should also be considered when purchased.
An older school in my neighborhood in Manhattan was renovated two years ago, and recognizing that the school was located near a busy street, air conditioners were installed in the windows. I understand that there are many schools located throughout the United States that were built years ago, when we very likely less attentive to the noise issue, but in rehabilitating these schools today, we should turn to our knowledge of noise impacts and the availability of noise abatement techniques to ensure greater quiet in classrooms.
We must be vigilant about potential noisy behavior within the school, as well. Children do work together in small groups, but they can be told to do so less loudly. Is it really necessary for the teacher or parent overseeing the cafeteria that a loud whistle be blown periodically when it gets too noisy? Can’t we consider signs asking students to talk more softly? Or, possibly, those in charge could walk around to the tables to remind the students to “keep it down a bit.” Silence is not being suggested; just a lowering of the voices. Students have also complained to me about the bells indicating class changes. Is it not possible to change the tone of the bells so they can still be heard but be less offensive?
Students must also be educated about the harm of loud sounds and noise to their hearing and overall physical and mental well-being. They should also learn about the beauty of the good sounds in their environment. To facilitate this education, I recommend the Sound and Noise Module developed by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Education Department.
For the past 40 years, I have conducted research and written on the adverse impacts of noise on mental and physical health, advised community groups on how to advocate for less noise in their areas, and worked with legislators concerned about lowering the decibel levels around us. I hope this article will serve to enlist other educators in working toward an aural environment for children that will enhance their mental and physical well-being.