When children attempt to focus on studying which is a serious mental activity - they
at one time or another, must have had their attention drawn by extraneous sound.
For some children, even the slightest pin drop or a trickle of water can be distracting
and for others it may be specific sounds like the steam cooker going off.
Even with the best of effort to engage purposefully in reading, or writing, or
remembering, sounds often seem to intrude on the awareness levels of children,
without their invitation or, apparent, control. These intrusions are instances in
which the capacity of children to focus, to attend selectively to thoughts or events,
suffers some kind of breakdown.
For most parents the major preoccupation is with the relation of the level of sound
to the deterioration in the cognitive performance - that their children demonstrate
and the vulnerability of selective attention to disruption from the interference via
the auditory stream that the child is being exposed to.
Evolutionarily, responding to sharp changes in energy in the environment, which
may herald danger or threat to bodily harm has led to the refinement of human
hearing capacity. The capacity to capture attention and receive information at
almost all times and while an individual is engaged in a secondary activity has
helped us through time.
However, the omnidirectionality and omnipresence of sound along with our
ability to discern minute differences also leads to sounds, which have no relevance
capturing the attentional networks of the individual’s brain even when it the
particular person is concentrating on a different task.
When children have their attention fastened on one activity, their brain is
registering a range of other events along with the main activity and this allows them
to switch attention between sources of information purposefully.
The children who are able to filter the irrelevant sound or the unattended message
are usually able to effectively utilize their cognitive capacity to attend to the task on
hand, while those children who witness a break down in their attentional selectivity
due to the overwhelming confluence of processing that is being received from
the ear and eye are not able to activate the cognitive mechanisms needed to stay
For the child who is just about to read and register the items he has read in his
brain, it has been suggested that the over stimulation by an extraneous sound leads
to a breakdown which is caused by an attentional blink. It is also suggested that
the interference which causes attention divide can result from a conflict of content
between what the child see’s and what is heard, and this may be through shared
temporal cues or even confusion caused in the mind due to the sameness of the
interfering sound and the material being attended to.
Some scientists have suggested that - besides the above - the attentional shift
also can occur - based on the degree to which the two activities – the focus on the
material being read - and the interference from the external auditory stimuli - draw
on the ordering of material by the child’s brain.
Auditory Distraction, caused by an external sound that shifts the attention of a child
can be due to - the stage at which the sound is processed, the sound pressure level,
change in state, effect of meaning and the perceptual organization of sound.
When we talk about the stage at which the external sound causes the Auditory
Distraction for a child, it implies that the external interference happens when the
individual is about to register the material and or during the subsequent rehearsal
of the material that has been read. Because of the manner in which this disrupting
sound impairs the registration in the brain of the text, which is, being read and
the items in it, which make up the serial recall task - the child is not able to encode
the text correctly or at all. While experts do not consider this paramount, this
attentional blip does disrupt the study sequence for a lot of children.
Parents in their effort to help their children study better attempt to provide a quiet
and peaceful environment, which is free from auditory distraction. The belief is
that given a quiet room blocking our irrelevant sound will help the individual study
However, in a large number of cases the effect of irrelevant sound on serial recall
is independent of sound pressure level - that is the disruption is roughly the same
whether the disturbance level is equivalent to a whisper or a shout.
The important point from a practical student perspective is that the effect of
irrelevant sound occurs at very low levels and the conventional route to abatement -
that of reducing the sound pressure may not make a difference.
The meaning of the auditory stream (phonological, loudness, category, etc) that
is disturbing a child while trying to attend to his studies - has a low relevance
to disruption - in his task or serial recall. If a child is easily auditorily distracted
when he tries to study, and if the supposed distraction seems to be coming from a
sound in a language the child does not understand or is phonologically different,
it is now accepted that this is not entirely responsible for or has little impact on
the disruption. Additionally - similarity between what is heard and what is being
rehearsed (studied) has little impact on the degree of disruption.
In fact, it is not the similarity between the two sequences but, rather, the
dissimilarity of events within the irrelevant sequence (sound being heard), which is
thought to produce disturbance.
Sequences that show a more marked degree of change within the irrelevant
sequence appear to be more disruptive.
Considering that sequences of irrelevant sound that demonstrate a more marked
degree of change - are more disruptive to children studying - and that the changing
state effect that occurs - whether the sounds are – discrete tones, noise bursts,
or speech or music containing many changes in tempo or pitch – and considering
that these can disrupt serial recall, it may be the distinct ability of each individual
to degrade - by filtering the sequence of sounds, and removing the more distinct
acoustic feature of the sequence which is disturbing that particular individual, that
leads up to this individual achieving a situation of minimal auditory distraction.
In fact children who are able to achieve a high degree of filtering notice a monotonic
improvement in performance.
Distinctiveness between successive items in an auditory sequence is the primary
determinant of disruption and the degree of change seems to determine the way in
which the brain automatically processes information about the order of events.
Much as children may want to block auditory distraction when they want to study,
sound appears to have an obligatory access to memory; even when attention is
directed towards the textbook, sound is recorded and processed by the brain. This
obligatory access is accompanied by a range of organizational activities, one of
which – seriation – has a general impact on any other activity concurrently calling
What may need addressing and understanding is that auditory distraction and the
disruptive effect of irrelevant sound on study performance is independent of the
level of sound.
Generally speaking, the sounds are equally disruptive whether they are as loud as a
shouted voice or as soft as a whispered voice This does not mean that isolated loud
sounds will not be particularly attention getting; however, it does imply that within
a sequence of sounds - the key factor determining the degree of distraction is not the
loudness of the sound.
Children, who are able to overcome auditory distraction when a distracting stimulus
is encountered, are actually coming up with an orienting response that directs
attention toward the distracting stimulus. Eventually, if the same disturbing
stimulus is presented repeatedly, these children are able to habituate the orienting
Being able to learn the tactic to habituate oneself to auditory distraction is difficult
and the conscious orienting response is not a simple form of learning.
The attentional filtering mechanism that makes children able to selectively attend
to what is part of their present goal and adapt to the environment also depends on a
memory process whereby the child is taught and learns to associate goal-irrelevant
distraction with a no-consequence response.
When an – ‘auditory distraction’ to ‘no-consequence mapping’ has been encoded in
the brain, the disturbing stimulus does not capture attention immediately, and its
power to inflict attention distraction is diminished to a considerable degree.
For children learning to associate auditory distractions that they face when they
sit down to study, with a no-consequence response, a lot depends on each child’s
individual differences in memory abilities, which modulate the ability to habituate
to the distractions. Individual differences in cognitive capacity also matter in the
ability to develop habituation to auditory distraction.
Cognitive capacity is typically operationalized with complex-span tasks and children
who evolve to higher cognitive working capacities are less susceptible to attentional
capture from irrelevant information in an auditory distraction scenario and superior
at dividing attention across multiple operations in comparison to other children.
The ability to control attention, constrain attention to relevant information, and
deliberately inhibit responses to irrelevant auditory stimuli help attending children
to be less susceptible to auditory distraction and attentional capture from abrupt
changes in the sound environment.
The development of the ability, to exhibit superior memory load manipulations -
influences the potency of inhibiting irrelevant auditory stimuli to capture attention.
How well children can constrain attention to focal materials in the presence of
irrelevant sound and overrule attentional capture eventually impacts on their
academic performance. Thus if parents constantly keep “telling” their child to filter
out or ignore the ‘door bell’ or the ‘ringing’ of the phone, they may wish to consider
for a moment that the child may actually be trying to ‘ignore’ the same auditory
distractions, but may genuinely not be able to filter and degrade the sound that is
causing the constant distraction.
All children do not enjoy greater primary and secondary memory abilities and
greater selective attention capabilities. But these can be developed with conscious
intervention - and targeted neuroplasticity - can modulate habituation rate, and
gradually the magnitude of the deviation effect attenuates as a function of increased
exposure to the intervention.