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The ability to hear plays a key role in learning for most students. Certainly, the expansion of learning options through technology has begun to lessen this dependence, but listening still plays a dominant role in a large majority of classroom learning activities. We recognize the importance of being able to hear well through the screening programs and follow-up supports and services we offer for students who need them.

However, being able to hear and being able to concentrate and follow sound are not the same. Context matters. Listening in a quiet space without competing sounds is much easier than attempting to listen when there is significant background noise or competing conversations.

A study released this month documents the extent to which the ability to hear in the context of background and competing sounds appears to be developmental. The implication is that younger children generally are less able to concentrate and absorb vocal messages. Sounds that may not be a distraction to an adult educator may be creating attending challenges for some students.

The study has reignited an ongoing conversation about the impact of competing sounds in classrooms, especially during formal lessons. Multiple studies have indicated that even moderate background noise during formal testing can lead to between a five and ten percent reduction in scores. Studies have also shown that background and competing noise often increases levels of anxiety and attention loss among students who struggle with these issues. Some studies have even shown that background and competing sounds can have a greater impact on those students who are trying hardest to pay attention.

Much of the attention around noise reduction has been focused on sounds originating outside of the school building. The concern has led to building codes mandating better noise insulation and other construction strategies to lessen the presence of externally originating sounds.

Yet, most studies have shown that most competing and distracting noise comes from within the school. Some of the noise occurs naturally from doors closing, voices in hallways, and other sources. Other potentially distracting noises originate in mechanical systems such as heating motors and lighting fixtures. Side conversations and multiple learning activities occurring simultaneously can also create challenges for listening and concentration. Even background music during a lesson can compete for student attention.

Obviously, not all noise will create problems for all students. Like most other aspects of learning, existing needs, preferences, and challenges vary from student to student and from context to context. However, there are steps we can take to lessen the potential that noise will interfere with the learning of our students.

First, we can be conscious of the noises present in our classrooms and take steps to minimize the noises within our control. We can also survey our students to gain their perspective and understand their experience. Remember, we may not find some noises to be distracting, but our students may experience them differently.

Second, if background and competing noise is an ongoing challenge, consider a classroom sound system that includes a microphone to increase voice projection. During times when students need to concentrate and avoid distractions, consider providing headphones.

Third, be thoughtful about the use of background music in your classroom. While music may offer a comfortable context for reading or studying for some students, it may have the opposite impact on others. Also, avoid background music while you are speaking to students, such as during a formal lesson. You may be creating competition for the messages you want students to hear and absorb. We can also remind students to be thoughtful about any music they choose while reading or studying. Some music might aid concentration for some students. The same or other music may be a distraction for others.

Fourth, be aware of potential cross-group noise contamination when students are working in groups or at centers. Obviously, there are limits to the physical space separation you can create, but monitoring voice levels and physical space can help. You also can lessen sound travel by having student groups face away from each other to lessen the direct path of sound.

It may not be realistic to control all potential competing and distracting noises during learning activities. It is also true that the same types and levels of noise do not have the same impact on all students. Still, we can make learning more comfortable and successful if we pay attention to the sounds that may be competing for the attention of our students.


Vander Ghinst, M., Bourguignon, M., Niesen, M., Wens, V., Hassid, S., Choufani, G., Jousmaki, V., Hari, R., Goldman, S., De Tiege, X. (2019, February 11). Cortical tracking of speech-in-noise develops from childhood to adulthood. Journal of Neuroscience 1732-18. Doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.1732-18.2019

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