I had a conversation with a four-year-old girl in Wellington Library. I asked her:
‘Do you like your day care?’
She said, ‘Sometimes I cry.’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because … it’s …. it’s so noisy I can’t hear my brain.’
I have been in many centres, where, especially at mat times, children are sitting with their hands over their ears. They move their play areas as far from speakers as they can get, sometimes to doorways, but of course they are moved out of them. Children on the autism spectrum are constantly upset. I have observed that some children’s normal speaking voice has become shouting at all times because that is what they have had to develop in order to be heard.
Noise is a serious problem in New Zealand ECE, but it has been left without adequate attention by either the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Health, or WorkSafe. Massey University research showed that 43% of children in full-day centres were exceeding the noise dose for hearing damage. That’s potential hearing damage when you are learning to talk, in an environment where it’s hard to hear. Far from the best start in life, or an advantage from ECE, it’s damaging children from the start. It’s hard for teachers to hear in excessive noise too. You know how hard it can be to ‘tune in’ to someone else’s two-year-old. How can teachers do it well in the middle of excessive noise? In a 2017-18 ECE teacher health survey with over 700 respondents, more than half of the respondents said that their centre was too noisy.
The Ministry of Education needs to remedy this as a matter of urgency
Young children exposed to constant noise are compromised in their hearing and their health. There is currently little research in the area of neural-auditory pathway development in children, and because of this, ECE needs to be erring on the side of caution. Currently, the space regulations are poor and there is no limit on group sizes of children in ECE.
Noise is associated not only associated with hearing damage, but as we all know it has emotional and social effects. Adults and children can be emotionally upset by noise, and feel worn down. It’s a cause of stress. More vulnerable children with hearing sensitivities or difficulties, those with emotional dysregulation or speech issues are particularly at risk in noisy environments.
Children’s language development is severely compromised in noise. Particularly for infants, those for whom English, as the primary language of care in most cases, is not their home language. There are also those who already have genetic or developing language difficulties. These noisy environments are likely to be harming them.
Teachers working in excessive noise are also risking health, hearing and mental well-being. Research shows that adult patience and sensitivity to others is diminished when noise is a constant annoyance in the workplace. My own research has shown an increase in teacher injury and illness, and a decrease in teacher sensitivity to children in ECE rooms which are often too noisy. Noise is a factor in environmental chaos. The detrimental effect of environmental chaos on child development is well-researched.
What about workplace health and safety law?
The levels measured by Massey University are a breach of employment law (Health and Safety at Work Act 2015), and this is in state-funded care and education for children. The exposures exceeded the 85dB averaged 8-hour noise dose limit, adjusted for the frequency response of human ears (normally tagged as ‘LAeq’). Worksafe states that noise over 85 dB LAeq, and peak events over 140dB Lpeak are harmful to adults. International guidelines state that very young children (babies, toddlers) should be in environments where the noise levels are no higher than 55 dB (LAeq), Infants have a different response to frequencies compared with adults, and listening for them requires a lot of cognitive effort, especially when there is a range of background sounds at varying levels. Older pre-school children should not be in environments which exceed 65 dB(LAeq). This is slightly higher than the level of normal adult conversation. Where noise is likely to be harmful, WorkSafe requires the noise to be isolated or minimised, or hearing protection should be worn. What this says is that in many of the environments tested by Massey, the children and teachers should have been wearing hearing protection to comply with law. That’s crazy of course. The answer is to reduce the noise.
There are some government guidelines with regard to noise in ECE, such as providing quiet spaces for children (difficult to impossible in many rooms), and being aware of the numbers of children likely to be in a space. These are vague, provide no thresholds and are rarely monitored or enforced.
Research indicates that one of the most effective ways to reduce noise is to reduce group sizes. There is also a need for building design that moves away from hard, echoing surfaces to softer environments, away from classroom or office-like environments to something more home-like. After all, these are children’s living spaces. We also need monitoring systems that provide information on noise levels to both the ECE centres and the Ministry of Education.
The Ministry of Education – a lack of action on complaints about noise
Both the alarming results of child and teacher noise exposure measurements, and other recommendations from Massey University on hearing loss in ECE teachers, appear to have been largely ignored by the Ministry of Education.
As an advocate for children’s well-being and teachers’ working conditions, I have made four complaints to the Ministry of Education in relation to noise in ECE. Two of these complaints came through our Facebook page, Teachers Advocacy Group, where ECE teachers and others in the ECE sector can anonymously bring concerns about their workplaces. Two came from my own working experience, reinforced by colleagues. The level of response to these appeals for help were:
- No response at all.
- Acknowledgment, but no practical help or monitoring (left for the centre to sort out with no measurable guidelines to work to).
- Very delayed response (many weeks) before acknowledgement and some action.
- Denial that there was a problem, despite a teacher’s clearly expressed concern.
The first complaint was in relation to a centre that had numerous problems. I advised the regional office and it took months for any action to be taken. When I finally got a response (after two requests, many weeks apart) there was no mention of the noise issue at all. The noise problem in that centre was serious.
In the second situation, a centre was told by Ministry of Education to sort out its noise problem, but was not given any guidelines or thresholds to work to. An administration person in that centre noted there were no measurable regulations for ECE noise (other than hearing damage thresholds), but they contacted a Professor in Environmental Health for advice. The centre also pointed out that the Ministry of Education expectations were unhelpful, as the centre (a small community centre) could spend a lot of money and not solve the problem, if the problem and solutions were not sufficiently identified.
The third example was a centre I worked in, which was so noisy I doubted I could cope until lunchtime. I consulted with other staff and informed the regional office. Several weeks later I was told that no-one had been to investigate because they wanted to go on a rainy day to get the full effect, and it hadn’t rained. I pointed out that I had not worked there on a rainy day, and that the noise was almost unbearable. When Ministry of Education investigators finally went, they admitted that they recognised the problem immediately, not only in the older children’s room, but in the infant room as well. The Ministry of Education required that furnishings be installed to mitigate the noise problem. This intervention should have occurred weeks earlier. Were the Ministry of Education requirements enough to protect them, and was any note made of particularly vulnerable children in that environment?
The fourth complaint came from a teacher who had added ‘Please Help’ in her message to me about the noise in her centre. The Ministry investigated and said that the noise level had been measured and deemed to be ‘normal’ and that a Noise Management Plan was in place. I was informed further, that the manager was continuing to take readings and they were also ‘normal’. What is ‘normal’? The Massey University research showed hearing damage level noise to be ‘normal’ in their sample of centres. I responded to this investigator that as a researcher currently working on noise in ECE, I would be interested to know what the Ministry deemed ‘normal’ and what a Noise Management Plan looked like. I have received no response.
Teachers, children and their parents rely on the Public Service to behave in ethical and effective ways. That means effect and accountable responses from the Ministry of Education to deal with health issues affecting children and teachers. It means acknowledgement of faults in regulations and processes. The Ministry of Education admits there are no ‘hard’ guidelines governing noise in ECE.
It would have been so much better if the complaints had been taken seriously, and the teachers treated with respect. Transparency and an acknowledgement of the scale of the problem would go a long way towards solving the problem of noise in early childhood education.
As teachers, advocates and researchers in ECE, we are hopeful that sufficiently robust relationships will be created between us and all Ministries and government agencies to improve conditions in this sector for teachers, carers and children, particularly for the very young. Imagine how much better it could be.