Beyond Child’s Voice: Be aware of background noise in public classrooms

by Carrie Jackiewicz, Special Services Coordinator

Background noise makes listening more challenging for students with hearing loss. An acoustically treated classroom is beneficial for a student with hearing loss because it reduces background noise. When I observe our alumni in their classrooms, I look at several aspects of the room to see what has been done to help dampen background noise.

One of the most important aspects is the classroom flooring. Carpet is ideal because it dampens noise. However, most classrooms have tile or a combination of carpet and tile. Several schools I have been to this year have installed laminate flooring, which I have found to be quieter than rooms that are tiled. Other aspects that can help dampen noise include area rugs, curtains, and bulletin boards.

In classrooms that are not carpeted, noise is often created by chairs moving across the floor. Some schools put tennis balls on chair legs and even table legs, which is effective in reducing noise. Some schools’ chair legs have caps with felt on the bottom, which help them glide quietly across the floor.

During my observations, I take note of any background noise in the room and whether it is continuous or intermittent. In many classrooms, the ventilation unit produces continuous noise. Whether that noise is quiet or loud, it is still a distraction for the student with hearing loss. In my reports, I often recommend seating a student at least six feet away from the ventilation unit.

Intermittent background noise can also be a distraction for students with hearing loss. If classroom doors are left open, intermittent noise from the hallway can interrupt a teacher’s instruction or directions. Another source of intermittent noise is pencil sharpeners. During one observation this year, the student I was observing was seated just a few feet away from the classroom’s pencil sharpener. 

The students in the class got up and sharpened their pencils during the teacher’s lesson, which made it challenging for even the students with normal hearing to hear everything the teacher was saying. The student with hearing loss was using a remote microphone system, which helps the student hear the teacher’s voice over any background noise. However, the pencil sharpening was causing unnecessary noise and it was preventing the student from hearing important information. In my report, I recommended that the pencil sharpener be moved away from the student with hearing loss and that pencil sharpening be restricted to specific times of the day.

What can students with hearing loss do when they encounter background noise in their classrooms? This is where both problem-solving skills and self-advocacy skills come into play. Students can brainstorm ways to reduce the noise, such as moving away from the noise or having the door closed during instruction. Students can also brainstorm language they can use to ask for noise to be reduced in their classroom. Students should feel empowered to advocate for a quieter listening environment, so they have optimum access to curriculum.