GUEST POST: Background Noise and Classroom Design

GUEST POST: Background Noise and Classroom Design


By Dr. Lucy Erickson

Dr. Lucy Erickson is currently employed as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Prior to becoming an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Dr. Lucy Erickson completed postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Maryland, College Park, and at the University of Göttingen in Germany. She earned her Ph.D. and Master’s degrees from Carnegie Mellon University in Developmental Psychology, funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Dr. Erickson's main line of research has focused on infants and young children’s speech segmentation and word learning, both in optimal and non-optimal (e.g., noisy) environments, and how language learning and comprehension may relate to general cognitive abilities (e.g., attention skills).  She also completed doctoral work at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign studying how children’s understanding of language about groups (e.g., “boys are good at math”) might play a role in stereotyping and the achievement gap. Dr. Erickson holds a B.S. in Psychology and B.A. in Germanic Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. After completing her bachelor degrees, she spent a year as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health at the National Institutes of Health, where her research explored learning and memory in mouse models of schizophrenia.

The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Foundation or the United States Government.

This is the first in a series of three guest posts by Dr. Lucy Erickson. These posts all focus on a different type of noise and distraction, and their effects on learning.

Imagine you are studying for an important exam. Would you rather study for it in the library or the crowded, noisy cafeteria? You probably said the library, and that would be the smart choice. The negative effects of noise are numerous: noise can increase stress, frustration, and even blood pressure (1). In addition to effects on health, the effects that noise has on cognition and learning may be especially relevant to classroom, daycare, and home contexts. There is evidence from studies with adults that noise can disrupt thinking, reasoning, and other cognitive processes, and the experience of struggling to concentrate in noisy environments is one that is universally familiar.

Image from Wikimedia

Image from Wikimedia

However damaging noise may be to adult performance, there is good reason to believe that the negative impact of noise is even worse with infants and young children, and this has been borne out by a growing body of research (e.g., (2)). Given how central learning is to early childhood development, and how much of knowledge transmission occurs through speech, the fact that infants and children are less equipped to understand and learn from speech in the presence of background noise is perhaps particularly concerning (e.g., (3)). Consequently, limiting background noise in children’s environments should be a critical priority if the goal is to create optimal learning environments.

In light of the evidence showing the negative effects of noise, why has there been an increase in the use of open classrooms and workspaces for both children and adults? The idea behind open classrooms and workspaces was that removing walls would increase collaboration. Although increasing collaboration may be a worthy goal, an unintended consequence of removing walls is that it results in very noisy workspaces. This is an example of how one type of evidence is used to justify an educational change without consideration of other factors.

Image from Wikimedia

Image from Wikimedia

Unfortunately, research shows that even non-open, walled daycares and classrooms are often noisy—louder than the recommendations established by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (4), (e.g., (5)). They also have more reverberation than is ideal, which is a kind of smearing or prolonging of sound that happens when sound bounces off walls and other surfaces and makes speech harder to understand. Both reverberation and noise levels are problematic, and especially in combination, but noise volumes in particular have been shown to be extremely detrimental to learning (6). Even more concerning is that classroom noise level estimates are typically taken when the classrooms are empty, measuring things like noises from heating and cooling and other constant types of machine-generated sounds. When classrooms are filled with children, they are even louder. On top of this, the talking, shrieking, laughing, and other sounds made by children and teachers can be highly distracting and have been demonstrated to make listening harder than other noises such as the hum of an air conditioner (e.g., (7)).

How can you minimize the noise in a classroom?

  • Use soft materials such as curtains, pillows, and wall-hangings to absorb the soundwaves that bounce around the room and cause reverberation.
  • Use smaller classrooms and class sizes to allow children to be closer to the teacher and allow the teacher’s voice to be louder in relation to some of the other background noises. Although one approach might be to ask teachers to speak more loudly and more clearly, this has its own difficulties as it has been associated with teacher vocal strain (8).
  • As new buildings are designed, take into account increasing knowledge of the dangers of noise to design better floor plans and use sound insulating materials for construction.
  • Time lawn mowing and other noisy maintenance activities to coincide with lunch or other less critical teaching moments.

The line of research described here is an example of how cognitive science research can be useful in thinking about ways to improve how children learn in the classroom. However, like many of the findings from cognitive science, this work is largely not known to education practitioners and state and local decision-makers. In addition, although research clearly indicates that high levels of noise should be limited, a full understanding of some of the reasons why young children find it so challenging to understand and learn from speech with background noise may inform other aspects of best practices for classroom design.

Because basic auditory skills mature quite early, some researchers suspect that poor attention skills may be the culprit for difficulties listening in noise (e.g., (9); (10); (11)). Unlike basic auditory skills, the ability to selectively direct attention is a skill that develops slowly in children, and is of vital importance to learning (e.g., (12); (13)). If difficulties with attention are in large part responsible for problems listening and learning with background noise, this has implications for how we think about the environments that will result in the best learning outcomes for children. In addition to being noisy, classrooms and daycares can be chaotic and visually disorganized, and research is just starting to suggest that this kind of visual clutter or disorganization may also have a big impact (14); (15). In next week’s guest post, I’ll talk about the visual environment, and how visual “noise” may affect children in similar ways to auditory noise.


(1) Ising, H., & Kruppa, B. (2004). Health effects caused by noise: evidence in the literature from the past 25 years. Noise and Health6(22), 5-13.

(2) Leibold, L. J., Yarnell, B. A., & Buss, E. (2016). Masked speech perception thresholds in infants, children, and adults. Ear and Hearing, 37, 345–353.

(3) Wightman, F. L., Callahan, M. R., Lutfi, R. A., Kistler, D. J., & Oh, E. (2003). Children’s detection of pure-tone signals: Informational masking with contralateral maskers. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America113, 3297–3305.

(4) American Speech-Language Hearing Association. (1995). Guidelines for acoustics in educational environments. ASHA, 37 (Supplemental 14), 15–19.

(5) Crandell, C., & Smaldino, J. (1995). An update of classroom acoustics for children with hearing impairment. Volta Review, 1, 4–12.

(6) Bradley, J. S., Reich, R. D., & Norcross, S. G. (1999). On the combined effects of signal-to-noise ratio and room acoustics on speech intelligibility. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America106, 1820–1828.

(7) Newman, R. S., Morini, G., Ahsan, F., & Kidd Jr, G. (2015). Linguistically-based informational masking in preschool children. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America138, EL93–EL98.

(8) Crandell, C., Smaldino, J., & Flexer, C. (1999). An overview of sound-field FM amplification. The Hearing Review, 6(6), 40–42.

(9) Erickson, L.C., & Newman, R.S. (in press). Current Directions in Psychological Science.

(10) Newman, R. S. (2009). Infants’ listening in multitalker environments: Effect of the number of background talkers. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics71, 822–836.

(11) Werner, L. A. (2007). Issues in human auditory development. Journal of Communication Disorders, 40, 275–283.

(12) Erickson, L. C., Thiessen, E. D., Godwin, K. E., Dickerson, J. P., & Fisher, A. V. (2015). Endogenously and exogenously driven selective sustained attention: contributions to learning in kindergarten children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology138, 126–134.

(13) Oakes, L. M., Kannass, K. N., & Shaddy, D. J. (2002). Developmental changes in endogenous control of attention: The role of target familiarity on infants’ distraction latency. Child Development73, 1644–1655.

(14) Tomalski, P., Marczuk, K., Pisula, E., Malinowska, A., Kawa, R., & Niedźwiecka, A. (2017). Chaotic home environment is associated with reduced infant processing speed under high task demands. Infant Behavior and Development.

(15) Pereira, A. F., Smith, L. B., & Yu, C. (2014). A bottom-up view of toddler word learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review21, 178–185.

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