Today’s blog is written by Dr. Arline L. Bronzaf. Dr. Bronzaft is a researcher, writer and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is the co-author of Why Noise Matters and has written about noise in books, academic journals, encyclopedias and the popular press. Dr. Bronzaft is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and serves on the Board of GrowNYC,
Sounds: Beautiful or Harmful
Sounds can be either beautiful and welcoming, or loud and intrusive. Intrusive sound interferes with the ability to appreciate the beautiful sounds in our environment if the noises around us drown them out. These disruptive noises intrude on our activities and can adversely affect our well-being. The studies linking loud sounds and noise to hearing loss have been, for the most part, accepted for some time. Many will argue that not enough has been done to curb the impacts of sounds on hearing. There is literature demonstrating that noise, intrusive and disturbing sounds, can result in physiological damage such as an increased risk of heart ailments, can bring about psychological stress and can adversely impact on cognition and learning.
Noise Intrudes on Learning
I was making these points about the good sounds and the intrusive sounds in our environment in a psychology class at Lehman College, over forty years ago (although the literature linking noise to overall mental and physical well-being was not that strong back then). After the lecture, a student in my class asked if she could speak to me privately. In our talk in my office, she asked if I could help her son and the other students in his class who were being exposed to elevated train noise that intruded on the teaching and learning in his classroom. The school which her son attended in Upper Manhattan had half the classrooms exposed to passing elevated train noise and the other half on the quiet side of the building. With the cooperation of the principal and the teachers in the school, my co-investigator and I were able to compare the reading scores of children on both sides of the building.
By the sixth grade, the children exposed to passing train noise were nearly a year behind in reading compared to the children on the quiet side of the building. I also learned that about eleven percent of teaching time was lost because of the noise from the passing trains.
Less Noise – More Learning
What followed after the findings of this study were published surprises many people who hear this story. The Transit Authority agreed to test out a procedure to lessen train noise on the tracks adjacent to the school and the Board of Education agreed to place acoustical tiles in the ceilings of the classrooms facing the tracks. After the two noise abatement procedures were in place, and the noise in classes facing the tracks was lessened, I came back to compare the reading scores of children on the track-exposed side with those on the quiet side of the building. The two groups were now reading at the same level. These two studies are considered the landmark studies in the field and their findings were confirmed by similar studies that followed.
Shortly after my studies, the Transit Authority agreed to install the rubber padding on tracks adjacent to all schools similarly impacted by the train noise. This study also contributed to the decision of the Federal Aviation Administration to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to abate noise at schools exposed to aircraft noise. The research finding that noise adversely affects cognition, reading and learning has resulted in schools receiving noise abatement, e.g. window panes, acoustical tile ceilings.
Despite Evidence Linking Noise to Learning – Some Schools Still Need Abatement
Even though the studies linking noise to poorer school performance are strong and have been around for years, some schools had to wait for proper acoustical treatment. P.S. 85 in Queens New York did not get the new air conditioners that protected the children from nearby train noise (rubber padding on tracks needed to be supplemented by additional abatement efforts) until 2016. I assisted the parents and teachers at this school in their efforts to lessen the noise in the classrooms. I also learned this week that there is a school in South Burlington, Vermont where the parents have been negotiating with the Federal Aviation Administration for years to insulate their school which has endured jet noise from a nearby airport for years. I am sure there are other examples where noise is still intruding on children’s classroom learning.
Homes Need to Be Quieter
Although my research examined noise effects on classroom learning, there is also research that indicates that noisy homes can slow down language and cognitive skills. These noises may come from within the home or from outside sources such as highways and airports. In New York City, after my two studies on classroom noise intrusions from elevated trains, the Transit Authority agreed to use the rubber padding along the entire elevated track system, not just at nearby schools, because people living in their homes, including children, were being affected by the passing elevated train noise daily.
Children Understand that Noise is Harmful
Whereas my two studies on classroom learning led to years of research and writing on noise impacts, they also kept my focus on the needs of children. I have visited schools in New York City to speak to children about noise and I learned that children were very aware of the intrusiveness of noise and welcomed my talks. They complained to me about the noises in their lives that they found bothersome, e.g. brother’s loud music, overhead aircraft. These children had a good grasp of how harmful loud sounds and noises could be. After my discussions on sound and noise with school children, I decided to write a young children’s book “Listen to the Raindrops” (beautifully illustrated by Steven Parton (father of a child with hearing loss) whicg tells the story from the perspective of a mouse listening to the sounds) highlighting the good sounds around us, e.g. the laughter of children, the singing of birds as well as the dangerous sounds, e.g. airplane roars, sirens, jackhammers. The book concludes by saying that if we don’t join together to stop the noise, we will not be able to hear the raindrops fall.
Sound and Noise Curriculum for School Children
Our book “Listen to the Raindrops” was published by the Center for Hearing and Communication in 2000 and had received some media coverage. The book has been recently published by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Education Department as part of an online educational curriculum entitled Sound and Noise Module (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/sound_noise.shtml )
Now that “Listen to the Raindrops” will be part of New York City’s Sound and Noise curriculum, I hope more children will be able to read and enjoy the book. More importantly, the Sound and Noise curriculum has been developed to be age-appropriate and so there are lessons for the lower grades as well for high school students. It is hoped that these lessons will educate children to protect their ears and bodies from loud sounds and dangerous noises. Additionally, with students sharing information learned in schools with their parents, I also hope that school children will discuss the Sound and Noise curriculum with their parents.
I have written this essay with two purposes in mind: 1) to spread the word about defining noise as harmful sounds and 2) to urge you to look at the Sound and Noise curriculum and share it with others. What better way to instill the dangers of noise and its abatement than to start teaching these concepts to the young.
*featured image courtesy wikimedia commons