From the cacophony of day care to the buzz of TV and electronic toys, noise is more distracting to a child’s brain than an adult’s, and new research shows it can hinder how youngsters learn. In fact, one of the worst offenders when a child is trying to listen is other voices babbling in the background, researchers said on Saturday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Children and adults hear different things in a noisy environment. Even though young children learn language through hearing it and have a greater need to understanding the speech around them, they are less equipped to deal with the input they are receiving. This does not necessarily refer to their ability to hear as normally developing children have a fairly well developed auditory system by a few months of age.
Consider how hard it is to carry on a conversation in a noisy restaurant. Researchers simulated that background in a series of experiments by playing recordings of people reading and talking while testing how easily children detected words they knew, such as “playground”, when a new voice broke through the hubbub, or how easily they learned new words.
Results found that the younger children in the study were able to recognise one person’s speech in the midst of multiple talkers however only at relatively soft noise levels. These results are not just a concern for toddlers and preschoolers but also for primary school aged children as well because our ability to understand and process speech over background noise doesn’t mature until adolescence.
This becomes even more challenging when there are additional sudden noises that occur apart from the background sounds. Noises such as someone coughs or a car horn blares can interrupt and block out part of a word or sentence. This is not a problem for adults as their brain automatically substitutes the missed component for the most logical choice. However, a child’s brain does not work in the same way, as their brains do not fill in these gaps.
The research has implications for classroom design too, as the type of flooring or ceiling height can either soften kids’ natural noise or bounce it around. But learning starts at home, and University of Maryland child language specialist Nan Bernstein Ratner often has parents ask if they should stimulate a tot’s environment with interactive toys and educational TV. “We tend to think bustling environments and creating background noise is stimulating for kids,” she said. But, she said, “what’s stimulating on the part of the parent may not be for the child.
The researchers of the study have suggested a number of tips to assist your child sound and language processing. This includes not leaving the TV, radio and other electronics on in the background. The research has not yet found whether soft music is distracting however, the lyrics may be. Speak with clear speech and ensure that you make eye contact. Ensure that when there is background noise that the child can see your face so they can also pick up extra cues such as mouth movements. Finally, if the child is unable to understand what you have said the first time, try again using simpler language.