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Noise hinders learning in children, researchers say

| Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON — From the cacophony of day care to the buzz of TV and electronic toys, noise is more distracting to a child's brain than it is to an adult's, and new research shows it can hinder learning among youngsters.

In fact, one of the worst offenders when a tot's trying to listen is other voices babbling in the background, researchers said Saturday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“What a child hears in a noisy environment is not what an adult hears,” said Dr. Lori Leibold of Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha.

That's a catch-22 in our increasingly noisy lives because “young children learn language from hearing it,” said Dr. Rochelle Newman of the University of Maryland. “They have a greater need for understanding speech around them, but at the same time, they're less equipped to deal with it.”

It's not a problem with their ability to hear. For healthy children, the auditory system is pretty well developed by the time they're a few months old.

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 words.

The youngest children could recognize one person's speech amid multiple talkers, but only at relatively low noise levels, Newman said. Even the background noise during relatively quiet day care story time can be enough for tots to miss parts of what's read, she said.

It's not just a concern for toddlers and preschoolers. The ability to understand and process speech against competing background noise doesn't mature until adolescence, Leibold said.

Nor is the challenge just to tune out the background buzz. Brief sudden noises — a cough, or a car horn — can drown out part of a word or sentence. An adult's experienced brain automatically substitutes a logical choice, often well enough that the person doesn't notice, Newman said.

“Young children don't do this. Their brain doesn't fill in the gaps,” she said.

The research has implications for classroom design, too, Leibold added, as the type of flooring or ceiling height can either soften kids' natural noise or bounce it around.

Learning starts at home, and University of Maryland child language specialist Nan Bernstein Ratner has parents ask whether 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 “what's stimulating on the part of the parent may not be for the child.”

Among the tips:

• Don't leave the TV, radio and other electronics on in the background. It's not clear whether soft music is distracting, but lyrics might be, Ratner said.

• Speak clearly and make eye contact.

• Especially in noise, make sure tots see your face. They can pick up on mouth movements, Newman said.

• If the child doesn't understand, try again with simpler words.

• For school behavior problems, make sure being unable to hear in class isn't the issue.

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