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New Standards Should Help Children in Noisy Classrooms

For more than two decades, research has established a link between noise and poor academic progress. New standards for classroom acoustics will be the first step in the effort to change all that. Taking control of noise in the classroom and in other places in the community is part of International Noise Awareness Day --- April 12, 2000. Included: Research establishes the effects of noise on classroom learning!

Teachers in schools near airports have two choices when airplanes take off or approach for a landing: They can raise their voices or stop talking until the roar abates. The same holds true for teachers who teach in schools near train tracks and noisy highways.

Many factors affect how well children learn and teachers teach -- and chronic noise is one of them! New standards for classroom acoustics will be among the first steps to help teachers and students do their jobs better.

Taking control of noise in the classroom and in other places in the community is part of International Noise Awareness Day April 12, 2000.

Although outside noise caused by trains, planes, and automobiles can make hearing more difficult for teachers and their students, inside noise can be just as serious a problem. For example, the sounds heating and air conditioning units make can also muffle teacher's voice.

"Poor classroom acoustics may be one reason Johnny can't read and Janie can't get her homework assignments down correctly," David Lubman told members of Acoustical Society of America in 1997. An acoustical scientist and a consultant in California, Lubman didn't tell the society anything unfamiliar to the membership. Substantial research has linked noisy classrooms with poor academic performance for the past 25 years.

Efforts to bring attention to the issue of noise pollution in America's classrooms are beginning to make a difference. The Access Board, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, is an independent federal agency that develops minimum guidelines and requirements for standards issued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The board will support the development of standards on classroom acoustical design by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Committee on Noise under the secretariat of the Acoustical Society of America. The committee hopes to agree to the proposed standards, Response to Petition for Rulemaking on Classroom Acoustics, at a meeting in June 2000. The proposed standards will be presented to the Access Board for approval before the end of 2000.

Lubman co-chairs the committee of 30 people, which includes parents of hearing-impaired children, audiologists, acoustical experts, architects, educators, and members of ANSI.


Interpretation of ADA opened the door for establishing classroom noise standards, said Michael T. Nixon, coordinator for the Coalition for Classroom Acoustics. The ADA prohibits architectural barriers, such as the physical obstacles stairs pose to a student in a wheelchair, he said. Noisy classrooms present similar architectural barriers to children with a hearing impairment.

Noisy classrooms impede learning for other children as well. Noise also affects children who have middle ear infections, for whom English is a second language, or who have learning disabilities, speech impairment, or central auditory processing disorders.

Standards for classroom acoustics will help all students, said Lubman. "For young children just beginning school, everything is so new," he explained. Studies show that young children are inefficient listeners who don't have the experience to fill in missing words or phrases. "So in a sense, they are disabled because they don't have the context to understand," Lubman pointed out.


The long journey to improve classroom acoustics has perplexed its proponents. "We have become a visually dominated society," Lubman stated. "We're not even aware when we can't hear. We put kids in classrooms where they can't hear, but we'd never put them in a classroom with the lights turned off."

Lois Thibault, coordinator of research for the Access Board and a member of the ANSI subcommittee on classroom noise, is also puzzled that the negative impact noisy classrooms have on learning doesn't alarm school administrators and the general public. "Why this doesn't capture the population's attention, I don't know why," she said. Years of solid research about the harmful impact of noisy classrooms have been largely ignored, according to Thibault.

Although enforcing new standards may be a few years away, they will provide guidelines for school districts and parents of hearing-impaired children. "This sort of gives a recipe of how to do it,'' Thibault said.


People seeking acoustics standards in the classroom have been on a roller-coaster ride. The new standards have been a long time coming, according to Michael Nixon. "It took us five years to get the government to act on what had already been mandated by Congress with the passage of the American Disabilities Act of 1990." It then took another two years for the Access Board, established by the ADA, to support the development of mandatory and enforceable guidelines.

There have been many obstacles to improving noisy classrooms. "Architects are not trained in architectural acoustics, and school administrators are not, either," Nixon continued. "Moreover, both groups do not have the foggiest idea of the devastating effect that excessive noise and reverberation have on hearing and understanding correctly what is being said in the classroom."

Architectural design's role in impairing "hearability" in a classroom setting is not new. More than 100 years ago, Harvard University faculty discovered that no one could hear anything in the new Fogg Art Museum lecture hall. The president of Harvard asked a physics professor, Wallace Clement Sabine, to do anything to improve the intolerable conditions. Sabine began exploring architectural acoustics and developed an equation for calculating the reverberation time in a room. That equation is still used today and will be cited in the proposed classroom acoustical standards.


The cost of improving classroom acoustics varies, Nixon explained. "We waste more money each year than what it would cost to fix up 50 percent of all classrooms in this country," he told Education World. The one-time investment can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, he said.

"School officials are the greatest barriers to greater academic achievement," Nixon said. "School administrators will tell you that there is no money in the budget, as was the case in the brand-new high school in the district in which I live and pay taxes. If kids can't hear and understand properly, they can't learn well or to their potential."

There was money for landscaping and a student parking lot though, Nixon pointed out. "I never saw a tree yet that contributed anything to the academic achievement," he said.


According to people who do the research, noisy classrooms have greater costs that cannot be measured in dollars. "Whether the noise is interior or exterior, student learning suffers," said Nancy B. Nadler, director of the Noise Center and the League for the Hard of Hearing. "Deficits in reading and language skills due to poor classroom acoustics are cumulative the effects of poor classroom acoustics on the very young student can be devastating."

In a 1975 study, Arline Bronzaft and Dennis McCarthy, compared reading scores of children in a New York City school whose classrooms were located adjacent to elevated train tracks with the reading scores of students on the quiet side of the school. By the time the students reached sixth grade, the students in classrooms on the noisy side of the school tested one year behind those whose classrooms were located on the quiet side. In a follow-up study six years later, noise abatement had reduced the noise and reading scores were equal.

According to Cornell University Science News researchers, children didn't learn to read as well if they were subject to chronic noise at home and at school. Gary Evans and Lorraine Maxwell, both environmental psychologists in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, showed that children living and going to school in noisy areas have difficulty acquiring speech-recognition skills. They found that kids tune out speech when contending with a racket.

The 1997 study compared 116 grade 1 and 2 children in a noisy school on the flight path of a New York international airport with children of the same age in a "quiet" school. Planes soared by the noisy school at peaks of 90 decibels of noise every 6.6 minutes. The quiet school was located in the same urban area but in a quiet neighborhood.

The new proposed ANSI classroom standards will cover background noise from outside and inside the classroom. Noise will not exceed 30 to 35 decibels, and the reverberation time will not be more than 0.6 seconds. The average American classroom (unoccupied) registers at 50 decibels and gymnasiums exceed 60 decibels, according to Lubman.

Evans and Maxwell suspect that other factors related to noisy schools and neighborhoods cause lower reading scores. Noise may make teachers and parents grumpy and unwilling to talk over the roar, so they may not use as many complete sentences and read aloud as often compared with other teachers and parents.

"When teachers have to raise their voices over background noise, their voices can become fatigued," Nadler said. "Working in this environment on an on-gong basis can contribute to teacher frustration and even burnout."

When teachers compete with noise in the classroom, they go home exhausted, Lubman noted, and "they don't even know why." Teachers lose about two days per year for vocal fatigue, which costs $567 million annually, Lubman said, referring to a study by Jewell Gould for Educational Research Services.


Nadler, of the Noise Center, recommends teachers notice that improper wall, ceiling, and floor finishes can muffle their voices. Acoustical tile ceilings, wall coverings, and bookshelves that absorb sound can help, she said. If there is chronic outside or inside noise in a classroom, such as the noise from ventilating and air conditioning units, advice from an acoustical consultant may be necessary.

Teachers can also teach their students about the dangers of noise. The Noise Center offers an educational anti-noise program for children in grades 4 to 8, called Stop That Noise! This multimedia program includes lesson plans with a variety of activities at a cost of $35.

How much do your students know about noise and the impact it has on them? Have your students take a Noise Center Fun Quiz on the League for the Hard of Hearing's Web site. For the correct answers, click the bar at the bottom of the page that says Click To Continue After You Submit Your Fun Quiz.


  • Noise Pollution Clearing House Quietnet This site provides information about noise organizations, publications, and other resources. It includes an online mailing list and forum about noise pollution and also provides information about sample ordinances and the latest on legislation that pertains to noise control.
  • Homepage of Classroom Acoustics This Web site is a resource for those concerned with meeting the proposed standards for classroom acoustics. It is updated with research information and current events pertaining to the proposed standards.

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Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
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