Psychological and pedagogical counselling centre no. 19, Warsaw
The Covid-19 pandemic, which kept us shut away in our homes for more than two years, had an impact on everyone’s health. When normality returned, the children had the greatest difficulty in readjusting to a pre-pandemic environment. For them, there was simply too much noise! They had become unaccustomed to the noise of school life and readjusting to that was a lot more difficult than even the experts had anticipated. The problem of noise and an inability to cope with it can severely impede normal auditory development in the youngest unless we start paying careful attention to the acoustics of the rooms where children are present.
At the psychological and pedagogical counselling centres, the appointment schedules for visiting specialists were completely booked up even before the lockdown. Parents would bring their children here if they noticed anything out of the ordinary in their child’s learning or behaviour. Generally, the most common cases included dyslexia, various types of developmental problems, as well as cases of high IQ, which often come to light in fairly atypical ways.
Once a problem was identified, the multidisciplinary team at the counselling centre would issue a recommendation that special education was required, or a specialist would prescribe psychological/learning support for the child at their nursery or school. But after a two-year break and a period when learning took place in the quiet of the home, a lot had changed. The counselling centres began to see a surprisingly large number of children suffering from auditory hypersensitivity.
Children who studied remotely are now suffering and are more sensitive to noise.
“The long period of isolation has meant that children now have a lower tolerance threshold to sounds,” says Ewa Rycombel, a speech therapist at Psychological and pedagogical counselling centre no. 19 (PPP19), in Warsaw, located at Lokajskiego Street.
“Some of them cover their ears in pain, others become abnormally animated. These kinds of behaviour determine the response of the specialists since auditory hypersensitivity is one of the eight symptoms of auditory processing disorder (APD). Children who studied remotely are now suffering and are more sensitive to noise. The return to a noisy school setting is so unsettling for them that an increasing number of anxious parents are bringing their little ones to the centre,” she adds.
Big efforts to improve acoustic comfort in the centre
The centre relocated not so long ago and is currently housed in a former secondary school building. And, of course, it is a building where sound reverberation is long, as is still the case in the vast majority of school buildings. However, the centre director, Ms Beata Mierzejewska, realised that the conditions should and could be a lot better – for the patients, their parents, and the staff of the centre.
“As part of our ongoing partnership with Primary School no. 340 (SP340) in Ursynów, I met the chair of the school’s parents’ association, Mr Robert Wojciechowski. Working together with other parents at the grassroots level, he initiated a full acoustic refurbishment of the school. The result was a colossal difference in working and learning conditions. So, we decided to follow in the footsteps of the parents of SP340,” says the centre director. “In the District Council, I set about trying to secure funding for a similar refurbishment of our centre, as good acoustic conditions are crucial to obtaining accurate diagnoses.”
This example demonstrates that if someone encounters noise and echoing interiors and is aware that the problem can be eliminated, they become a committed supporter of quiet spaces.
After a couple of months’ hard efforts, they were able to secure funding for the refurbishment of the three most important areas: the exercise hall, the room used to assess the psychomotor development of the youngest children aged 0–3, and the ground-floor corridor, which leads to the offices.
“Our company welcomed its involvement in the acoustic refurbishment of SP340, which became an example for other educational facilities. We understand acoustic comfort is essential in schools and all facilities that contribute to the normal development of children, including those who are hypersensitive to sounds. So, we were very pleased to take on the noise reduction project at PPP19,” says Monika Sadłowska, an expert in acoustics at Ecophon, who was involved in the refurbishment projects to improve acoustic conditions at both facilities.
White noise toys can harm normal development in young children
Areas where children are present need to be comfortable, above all in terms of acoustic comfort (absence of echo). As Ewa Rycombel points out, growing up in an environment which contains rather too many stimuli of various types (visual, auditory, and tactile) can lead to serious developmental issues for a child.
“A person’s middle ear has two muscles – the tensor tympani and (interestingly, the smallest muscle in the human body) the stapedius. When these two muscles are working properly, they set mechanisms in motion whereby sounds that reach us are reduced in volume, with the result that the sound reaching the brain is dampened, and the brain can function properly,” says Ewa Rycombel.
“However, the process is not that straightforward, as even a prolonged head cold in a child can impede the functioning of these two muscles, preventing them from providing full protection against noise. This can contribute to the onset of auditory hypersensitivity,” she adds.
If we add in poor acoustic conditions at school and sound reverberation, then the child will have problems functioning in conditions that other people consider normal.
The speech therapist also cautions against excessive auditory stimulation in infants.
“Parents don’t realise that using white noise to lull young children, i.e. newborn babies and infants, to sleep (whether from white noise toys, a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner) will have an effect on the normal development of their hearing. If we fall into this trap, the result is auditory overstimulation of the nervous system. You must remember that the brain of a newborn baby already has to deal with a lot of stimuli and information, all of which must be processed during this particular stage of its development. A baby can’t tell us that it is receiving too many stimuli or that they are too loud, so the defence deployed by the nervous system is to block its perception,” explains the specialist.
These and other issues that arise during a child’s development can be the cause of the problems that lead to parents visiting the centre. The problems can include the following: speech defects, as the child cannot hear spoken sounds properly and/or cannot say them; impulsive and aggressive behaviour; a tendency to burst into tears, shout or become withdrawn and apathetic. Overstimulation of a child’s brain can cause them to perceive the world as louder than it is.
“If we add in poor acoustic conditions at school and sound reverberation, then the child will have problems functioning in conditions that other people consider normal,” says the speech therapist.
Peace and quiet heal and help in reaching a diagnosis
It is exactly for this reason that the issue of noise reduction in educational facilities is so critical. Equally important is the provision of optimum acoustic conditions in medical facilities and counselling centres, as there is no way you can arrive at an accurate diagnosis if you are surrounded by noise.
“Before the counselling centre in Ursynów was refurbished, we came across rooms that had been finished in hard materials, which generally reflected sound – vinyl floor coverings and cement-lime plaster on the walls and ceilings,” explains Monika Sadłowska from Ecophon.
“The lack of furnishings in some of the offices didn’t help either, as this also has an impact on the propensity for reverberation,” she adds.
The decision was taken to fit sound-absorbing materials in the exercise hall, which would not have any furnishings in it, and the classes held in it involve groups of children. Here a sound-absorbing ceiling was fitted across the entire area of the room, along with wall panels, which also reduce sound reflection between the walls.
Before the refurbishment reverberation time was three seconds long.
“This is a very long reverberation time for such a small area. The acoustic upgrade did not take long to complete, resulting in a measured reverberation time of just 0.72 seconds. The speech transmission index was also measured, showing an increase from 0.39 to 0.74, assessed as an improvement from poor to good speech intelligibility (values upward of 0.75 are defined as ‘excellent intelligibility’),” explains the expert.
“We obtained similarly good results after carrying out measurements in the room for assessing the psychomotor development of the youngest children. Here the reverberation time decreased from 2.12 to 0.46 seconds,” adds Sadłowska.
The final area to have noise reduction implemented was the ground-floor corridor. The staff had noticed that some children with significant auditory hypersensitivity who visited the centre were unable to use the corridor without covering their ears. This also changed after the refurbishment.
“Both the staff and our patients hear a clear difference and are really pleased with the new conditions in the acoustically upgraded areas,” Beata Mierzejewska acknowledges with a smile.
“Now every member of staff wants to hold their sessions in the rooms that have noise reduction. That’s why I’m definitely going to try to obtain noise-reduction funding for more rooms,” says the centre director.