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Why is noise an issue in ECE?

Why is noise an issue in ECE?
by Susan Bates and Dr Wyatt Page

Susan Bates, Early Childhood Teacher and Independent Researcher
Dr Wyatt Page, Associate Professor of Acoustics and Human Health in the School of Health Sciences at Massey University, has researched noise and the effects on human health for over 10 years.

Imagine trying to learn a language while unable to hear what is being said. Imagine trying to fit into the culture of a group and routine and only having body language and watching others as cues. Imagine working in an environment that by NZ Standards can cause you injury and there is no one enforcing the rules. Imagine being in an environment that is too noisy by any standard, but you also suffer from a particular sensitivity to noise, you are on the Autism spectrum, you already have hearing difficulties due to otitis media or middle age, you have a language delay, or are trying to learn English as second language.

These conditions are being experienced daily by our children and teachers in schools and early childhood centres. The effect of excessive noise on humans is, among other things, an increase in anxiety, annoyance, a lack of sensitivity, fatigue and withdrawal from others. A lack of awareness of the environment, and those within it, can result in an increase in accidents and injury.

Adult withdrawal causes rifts in socio emotional development for children, a lower standard of care, and a breakdown of relationships in teaching teams.

Teachers are experiencing voice strain and female teachers are more prone to suffering permanent damage due the anatomy of their vocal folds. In turn, dysphonic (impairment in the ability to speak normally) adult voices are more difficult for children to hear, particularly in pre-school, during their crucial language learning development stage. The hearing mechanism (‘the ear’) does not fully mature until 2 years of age, while the hearing system is not fully matured until the age of 12 years. It is argued that children 0-2 years are more susceptible to hearing damage at exposure levels significantly lower than adults. Language learning also suffers if background noise makes it difficult to differentiate between language sounds and some words.

The Licensing Criteria for the premises of early childhood facilities are clear that when assessing noise control, consideration must be given to the numbers of children, their age and ability and the activities in a space. However, the license is given before there are any actual children or teachers in any space.

There are regulations concerned with noise levels, one of them is a requirement to “ensure that noise levels do no unduly interfere with normal speech and/or communication, or cause any children attending distress.” Some children (and adults) are negatively affected by relatively low noise levels, or by sudden noise events. Who is monitoring this? And who is enforcing the regulations?
ERO reviews are focussed on the ‘quality’ of children’s outcomes. According to their documents, “an early learning service should contribute to secure, confident children able to communicate and work with others”. The noise levels in an early learning service will certainly affect these outcomes, particularly for what ERO are currently calling ‘priority learners,’ those identified as requiring extra help to achieve equity. These learners are predominantly Maori, Pasifika, disadvantaged or those who have diverse needs.

Sleep rooms are spaces which need to be quiet and calm, have adequate ventilation and temperature. Sleep rooms can be badly ventilated, too crowded and are often extremely noisy. Unsettled babies in under twos rooms are often not removed from the space. A crying baby can register a noise level at least twice as high as adults can comfortably accommodate. Babies are often left to cry in ECE services because carers are too busy to attend to them. This is potentially endangering children’s hearing, but also adults. With a highly distressed baby, hearing damage can begin to occur after only 10 minutes of exposure according to the Worksafe Approved Code of Practice. A baby’s cry is designed to centre on the most sensitive part of our hearing frequency range, therefore, it can sound louder and more easily damage hearing. Not to mention the emotional damage for a distressed baby not being comforted.

The Licencing Criteria for ECE state that quiet spaces must be provided for children. Quiet spaces allow for children to de-stress and provide some time for their hearing to recover from sustained noise. There is no such stipulation for quiet spaces for adults to de-stress and for hearing to recover. Many teachers in ECE do not have breaks, and some do not have staff rooms to take them in.

WorksafeNZ describes noise induced hearing loss as ‘serious harm’. Employees have grounds to pursue a case of regulations breach if their employer is not taking all steps ‘as far as reasonably practical’ to protect their staff from injury. Areas with awful acoustics with minimal treatment and hard reverberant surfaces, areas which are overcrowded, particularly on wet days, are putting the health of staff and children at risk, but also compromising ‘quality’ learning outcomes.
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