This year my Sunday School class is learning about other religions and this past month we studied Quakers, for whom silence is key component of their meetings (for unprogrammed Quakers at least). In the final session this past Sunday, we were speaking about silence and many of the children spoke passionately about how school was just too loud. Keep in mind, these children come from schools across DelCo, so it’s not just SHMS, but a widespread problem.
Increasingly, studies are showing the effect of noise – even low levels of noise – on student performance,
But noise in the background doesn’t have to be that loud to be distracting for students. In a 2013 study in the Journal of Urban Health, a publication of the New York Academy of Medicine, 8- and 9-year-old students who had higher “ambient” noise levels in school performed significantly worse on standardized tests in mathematics and French language, after controlling for their socioeconomic backgrounds. A difference of 10 decibels of regular background noise was associated with 5.5-point-lower scores on average in both subjects.
It could be theorized that children that spent so long at home during the pandemic, where it was probably on average quieter, are struggling more than past children. It’s probably too early for any such studies to have been run. But anecdotally, the noise is having a pronounced effect on the middle schoolers I know.
This opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution has links to a lot of useful information about noise in schools.
How loud is too loud for learning? Not as loud as you might think. According to the American National Standard on Classroom Acoustics, the noise level in empty classrooms should not exceed 35 decibels, or about the level of a whisper. For context, normal human speech takes place at about 50-55 decibels, and experts recommend a 15 decibel difference between the sound of a teacher’s voice and background noise. Keep in mind that decibels are logarithmic, so 60 decibels sounds twice as loud to the human ear as 50. Given that normal conversations run around 55 decibels and permanent hearing damage begins at 80-85 decibels, one can see that small increases in decibel levels can have a major impact on children’s ability to hear, concentrate and learn.
This particular link has a lot of links to further scholarly articles on the subject. But most of that discussion is about road and aircraft noise. In the case of the children I’ve heard from, the noise causing them problems is coming from other students. That seems to be less commonly studied. Environmental factors are critical to student’s wellbeing and performance whether its noise, sleep or nutrition.
I’ve said to our township EAC that we should think about noise pollution in the township. The spring greets us with a chorus of lawnmowers and the fall another of leaf blowers. The noise seems almost constant throughout the weekends. The noise of the nearby highways is ever-present, with the noise of trains, ships, fireworks and the fire department sirens occasionally breaking through. For those nearby in Chester, they are even closer to the noise (and many decades late, they are finally getting some noise barriers). And, all that noise is not good for us,
Researchers and clinicians are trying to change this. They’ve shown that noise pollution not only drives hearing loss, tinnitus, and hypersensitivity to sound, but can cause or exacerbate cardiovascular disease; type 2 diabetes; sleep disturbances; stress; mental health and cognition problems, including memory impairment and attention deficits; childhood learning delays; and low birth weight. Scientists are investigating other possible links, including to dementia.
The BBC also has a piece about the effects of noise on us,
But despite the remaining questions, there is a growing recognition of the connections between noise pollution and reduced physical health. A 2018 report by the WHO noted that each year, western Europeans are collectively losing more than 1.6 million years of healthy life because of traffic noise. This calculation is based on the number of premature deaths caused directly by noise exposure as well as the years lived with noise-induced disability or illness.
It might be a bit much to say your neighbor’s lawnmower is killing you, but it kind of is. And that’s why we should give more thought to the many sounds we hear throughout the day around our community. The comprehensive plan is coming up, and maybe some thought should be given to not just how our community looks, but how it’ll sound.