Posted on Monday, September 15, 2014

Hearing Health and Education

Kids whispering. Hearing loss and learning disabilities have been connected.

The Mozart Effect is a much touted finding that showed listening to Mozart could make people and specifically children and infants smarter. Now new research suggests that listening to music, not just Mozart, can have more to do with hearing health and education than previously thought. The idea that music can improve hearing and education was shown by testing students with hearing deficits and learning disabilities. It turns out, if listening is a skill, improving that skill can greatly enhance a child's attention and ability to discern sounds, resulting in better education.

Dramatic studies of children who have problems with listening, like students with learning disabilities and hearing loss, demonstrates the important connection between hearing health and education.

Reports show that students with autism and learning disabilities exhibit an inability to comprehend or process certain sounds, like a teacher’s voice, especially if that sound has competition—say from a noisy classroom. Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience’s department tested these children in order to find out how to improve these abilities to hear and therefore learn. Since classroom acoustics have long been held inadequate for average students, her findings can have far reaching implications for all children.

Hearing health, education, and music the ties that bind.

Dr. Kraus's work has shown that musicians—people trained in musical instruments and the study of music even as a hobby, exhibit greater level of skills in the exact area—speech recognition within a noisy environment, that learning disabled students lack and which can also be hindered for average students due to classroom acoustics.

“Musical expertise induces neuroplastic changes throughout the nervous system, including sharpening of early sensory processing, improved linguistic ability, working memory, and source segregation—skills known to be crucial for speech in noise perception.” Dr. Nina Kraus

Studies done by Dr. Nina Kraus of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience’s department also suggest that, “Music training in schools might engage attention and memory skills, which in turn….would lead to better and stronger phonological processing, leading to better reading skills.” In other words, the advantage of having music programs in school isn’t only that it teaches children to listen better, creating better hearing health and education. Listening to music and deciphering the complexities of sound can create an advanced auditory processing system, yes, but the ability to hear and hear well also has dynamic implications for the brain. As Dr. Straus's studies also showed, “As interesting as music training’s role in developing listening skills may be, something that is equally exciting is what our work in the brainstem has told us about literacy and reading, and how music may affect these realms.”

“Musicians have massive changes in cerebral cortex fibers that connect hemispheres and in white and gray matter at cortical levels.” Dr. Nina Straus

Dr. Kraus's finding suggest that a child that is trained to hear better, through interaction with music, will be better able to focus, listen, read better and will even be smarter. It should be noted, however, that for children with hearing loss or acoustical issues in the classroom there are also other options that need to be considered. Students with a hearing loss should first correct their deficit through hearing aids. A child who starts off with a hearing loss can't be taught to hear and focus past it. This hearing loss must be corrected and only then can a child's interaction with music help them reap the greater benefits. Of course, for the average student, parents and educators should also address the core problem of classroom acoustics.

Improving school acoustics will go a long way in helping all children focus on classroom lectures. If changing the classroom isn't an option, parents can look into music lessons and changing the acoustics of the classroom specifically for their child. Today’s hearing solutions can help to diminish background noise, assuring that students with learning and hearing problems have every advantage, but they can also help average students who have problems hearing in classrooms. As Phonak points out on their website, "These FM systems commonly work together with a user’s hearing aids, although systems are also available for individuals with otherwise normal hearing." Diminishing background sounds can also be accomplished for students through other assistive listening devices such as the Amigo. Also have your child checked with a hearing health profesional to make sure their hearing health is sound and isn't interfering with their education.

Parents shouldn't assume a child's problems focusing in school are due to attention deficits. Childhood hearing loss has similar symptoms, but lack of awareness means children aren't always diagnosed in a timely manner.

Testing your child's hearing health and aiding classroom acoustics are both good ways to improve education. It's also good to remember playing a musical instrument and being trained in music appreciation can make your child smarter through their lifetime by improving brain plasticity and hearing health. So move over, Mozart, make some room for your fellow musicians, because it’s not just your dulcet strains that can play a part in learning. It’s everyone’s.

Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. "Older musicians experience less age-related decline in hearing abilities than non-musicians." ScienceDaily, 13 Sep. 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.

Society for Neuroscience. "Musicians less likely to experience age-related changes in the auditory cortex." ScienceDaily, 16 Nov. 2010. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.

Kraus Nina, PHD. “Music and Language Shape How We Hear”, Northwester.edu.brainvolts Spring 07, taken on November 9, 2011
Chandrasekaran Bharath, PHD. Kraus Nina, PHD
“Music, Noise-Exclusion, and Learning Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal”
Vol. 27, No. 4 (April 2010), pp. 297-306 Published by: University of California Press

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