Even if you don’t have any small half-clones (i.e., children) eating all your food and taking over your home, you’ve probably been around long enough to know that children are not typically creatures of quiet. They are loud. They scream. They laugh. They clang and bang and buzz. From running their mouths to running circles around tired but patient caretakers, these tiny humans can alone create a cacophony that causes adults to seek silence. Add in the ambient noise of other people, appliances, electronics, traffic, etc., and children find themselves at the center of a day filled with sounds.
These sounds often become noise, which is defined as any unpleasant or unwanted sound, and as much as noise can simply be a nuisance, it can actually have detrimental effects on a child’s physical and psychological health — including learning and behavior. Young children in particular are susceptible not only to auditory damage from noisy environments but non-auditory damage as well.
Studies have found that classrooms often have noise levels higher than what is recommended by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and that both children with and without hearing impairments are affected. Skills such as speech, memory, and reading are especially at risk when it comes to noise. Children can have trouble concentrating and thinking clearly in noisy situations. These problems can lead to frustration and lower levels of achievement in the classroom. In a Child Development article titled “Learning in Complex Environments: The Effects of Background Speech on Early Word Learning,” authors McMillan and Saffran note that studies on environmental noise and its effects on children suggest an impact “cognitively and psychophysiologically, as evidenced by negative school performance and increased cortisol levels and heart rate.” That’s a pretty intense statement considering noise is a constant in our lives!
So is there an acoustic solution to this problem many of our classrooms have? On new builds, taking the ANSI standards into consideration is easy enough, and renovating existing classrooms is a possibility with some practical updates. Here are 15 solutions for the classroom that schools can implement for better learning.
1. Insulate Floor-Ceiling Assemblies
In many classrooms, the sounds emanating from the floors above can greatly increase noise. Those in the room above may be walking gingerly on light feet, but those quiet footfalls can turn into thunderous stomping to those below. The space between the floor above and the ceiling in the room can be insulated to help reduce building noise. Installing sound-absorbing ceiling panels can further minimize the problem and create a quiet space for learning.
2. Examine HVAC Systems & Lighting Fixtures
While keeping students comfortable in a classroom is important, so is making sure the sounds produced by heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems is minimized. Clanging and booming ducts, as well as loud hums and buzzes, can prove to be disruptive, so implementing maintenance and repairs is crucial for better acoustic quality. Replace lighting fixtures that hum, buzz, or otherwise make unwanted sounds with quieter options.
3. Turn Off Noisy Equipment
Because machines and equipment may be necessary in some classrooms, making sure to turn them off while not in use can cut down the distraction of noisy fans and internal components that may otherwise disrupt learning. Since children typically have a better range of hearing than adults, they may be able to hear sounds from this equipment that isn’t detectable by the teacher. But don’t store these machines in another room when not in use. Keeping them in the classroom may provide a better reduction in reverberation by breaking up space where sound may otherwise be reflected. Try keeping such equipment under a fabric cover when not in use for further improvements.
4. Shut Them Up — The Doors & Windows, That Is
Closing doors and windows are an easy, free fix that reduces unwanted sounds from the building’s exterior and interior environments. If airflow is a problem, bringing in silent fans may be a better solution for keeping the room cool compared to opening windows and doors. Selecting a quiet, oscillating floor fan that uses a remote control allows the teacher to easy control and help improve air circulation for a larger area. Checking for and fixing cracks and open spaces around doors and windows can help reduce exterior noise as well.
5. Lay Down Some Carpet Magic
Sound-absorbing floor coverings can significantly reduce reverberations in classroom settings, and the larger, the better. If possible, install wall-to-wall carpet for the best results. In rooms where installed carpet is impractical or undesirable, adding smaller rugs can also help with noise to a lesser but still beneficial extent.
6. Bring in Bookshelves
Shelves filled with those valuable learning tools can help dampen sounds and create a quieter environment by breaking up sound. Whether those shelves are modular and mobile or wall-mounted, adding them to the classroom can not only add storage space and aid in organization but help improve acoustics as well. Plus, what teacher doesn’t love having more reading options for the students?
7. Cover Chair Legs
Add neoprene tips to chair legs! This simple fix can be applied to seating in order to reduce noise created by chair movement. Chair leg tips can be especially helpful in situations where carpeting or floor rugs are not possible or practical. Make sure to avoid latex since some children may be allergic. Skip the tennis balls — some are made with natural rubber latex, so stick with safer materials like neoprene.
8. Add a Variety of Furniture
Bare rooms bring out the worst sounds in an environment, especially when floors are also bare. Not only will a variety of fun and functional pieces of furniture help enliven a child’s imagination, these items help create spaces where sound can be redirected or absorbed instead of reverberating and causing acoustic problems. Look for pieces that include foam or fabric for even more improvements through sound absorption.
9. Boost the Teacher’s Boom
In classrooms where the teacher location during lessons is fixed, sound-reflecting surfaces placed above the speaking location can be beneficial in many ways. The teacher can reduce vocal strain by not having to speak as loud, and students can hear instruction more clearly with less effort.
10. Upholster the Seating
While this may be impractical for some ages and settings, sound-absorbing coverings on chairs and other seating can reduce reverberation in classrooms. Harder surfaces can reflect sound, so choosing durable, sturdy materials with adequate padding can provide students with both comfort and better acoustics.
11. Break Up the Back Wall
In situations where the room has a clear “back” wall opposite the speaking location, installing sound-absorbing panels or wall features that are tilted to avoid reflecting sounds back to students and the teacher can decrease distracting reverberations.
12. Make Rooms Smaller
If a space is larger than necessary for the number of students, cut it down! Studies show that more distance between source and receiver means a lower speech intelligibility. If students cannot hear clearly, they cannot learn properly. Using sound dampening partitions to reduce overly large spaces can help students understand the teacher better during group lessons.
13. Hang Up Student Artwork
This is an easy acoustic solution for the classroom that can also boost students’ self-confidence. Art projects and other assignments can be suspended from the ceiling to function as inexpensive ceiling baffles. Fiber projects can be especially helpful in cutting down troublesome echoes that might otherwise bounce off the ceiling unhindered. For even better sound absorption, manufactured ceiling sound baffles made of fiberglass or acoustic foam can be installed as well.
14. Try Some Tech
Installing hearing-assistive technology is one way to help students hear clearly and get the message during lesson time. Audio distribution systems can amplify sound for all students or directly to students wearing specific hearing devices. These systems reduce the distance between the speaker and listeners, which improves the signal-to-noise ratio in the classroom. Another benefit is for teachers, who experience a reduction in vocal strain and spend less time repeating themselves throughout the lesson.
15. Treat the Walls & Windows
Putting up sound-absorbing materials on both the walls and the windows is another simple and easy solution for better classroom acoustics. Curtains in a variety of sizes are readily available at many physical and online stores and can help block exterior noise. Hanging materials like felt or cork on walls can open up the space for bright colors that accentuate classroom themes or allow children a place to pin up projects for display.
Resources for further reading and in-depth study:
Knecht, H. A., Nelson, P. B., Whitelaw, G. M., & Feth, L. L. (2002). Background noise levels and reverberation times in unoccupied classrooms: Predictions and measurements. American Journal of Audiology, 11(2), 65–71. doi:10.1044/1059‐0899(2002/009)