Earplugs, ear-, and headphones

Recommendation 109
Allow earplugs ear- and/or headphones in the classroom

Chapter (theme)
Interior design* (noise and acoustics)

Because of
sensory sensitivity (to noise), executive functions (attention and concentration)

In order to
avoid and/or invite sound and to improve attention and concentration.

As emphasized in other ‘sound’ recommendations and in the theme sound, noise in school is a very prominent burden, especially to oversensitive students.
Noise may be tackled at its source by preventing it, then by hindering it to travel through materials and through the air or by muffling its reflection and shortening its duration and probably by a number of other ways. All these measures are intended to eliminate or lessen the possibility of noise reaching the ear. If such measures – if taken at all – are insufficient, trying to prevent it to enter the ear is the last resort.
For this reason schools are advised to allow the use of devices which prevent noise entering the ear by students who need them.

There are several such devices: earplugs and ear- and headphones.
There are sophisticated earplugs available which seal off any sound to a considerable degree and avoid uncomfortable sensations when putting them in or pulling them out.
Well fitting in-earphones are about as effective in isolating sound and can be used to listen to music or something else, which drowns out the remaining environmental sounds.
Over-ear headphones generally seal off sounds a little less but can also drown out other sound. They are the only alternatives to people who have an aversion against putting something in their ear canals.
Noise cancellation is achieved electronically by registering environmental sounds which are reproduced in a way that they eliminate these sounds. (A drawback is that the sounds have to be stable, because the device needs time to tune into particular sounds.) Built into in-earphones they are more effective than built into over-ear headphones.

So, as far as noise reduction is intended, the individual must choose for or against in-ear devices, ones with music or without and consequently for varying degrees of noise-reduction.

The learning situation
Learning situations have to be taken into account too. Here a careful balance has to be struck between the individual sensitivities and the requirements of his or her education. Learning situations which don’t require the spoken word aren’t hindered by students who are in a sound bubble, such as reading, doing tests, etc.
Other learning situations, on the other hand, are virtually impossible without auditory communication. Those situations call for headphones without noise cancellation. So there’s a real dilemma in – the hopefully rare – cases in which students cannot bear the then audible classroom noise. Then a compromise is needed in which the need for the spoken word is kept to a minimum and other circumstances are adapted as well, such as working in a quiet room.

Under-sensitivity or hyposensitivity
Head- and earphones offer a rare opportunity to meet the needs of those who are under-sensitive to sound. Although this may be different from sound to sound for the same individual, over all under-sensitivity is more common, especially in young people, than oversensitivity. (See more about the senses and the Chinese study in the theme sound.)
In most other situations it is difficult to meet the needs of the under-sensitive, but here this is possible. This is an added argument for the recommendation to allow the use of devices which can play loud sounds such as music. In order not to bother others the use of well fitting in-ear earphones is to be recommended.

An example**
An example of the successful use of headphones – among other things – can be found in The Autism Toolbox which gives advise for dealing with autistic pupils in mainstream Scottish schools:
“A school with 2 pupils on the spectrum in a P5 class [age between 8 and 9] developed the idea of an individualised work station by creating an “office” area within the class. This space was available to all pupils who recognised that they needed a quieter space in which to work. The office was deliberately designed to give the feeling of a “grown up” space using real life office equipment. Pupils were also given the option to wear headphones and listen to music if they wished. Very quickly this resource became a normal, accepted part of the classroom.”
One of the rare scientific effect-studies on the use of headphones in class is one by Rowe et al.



One might expect this recommendation to be in the chapter Installations and appliances. Instead it was added to a few other ‘non-building’ recommendations concerning noise in this one.
Also mentioned in recommendation 30.
The Autism Toolbox
Dunlop et al, The Autism Toolbox. An Autism Resource for Scottish Schools, Edinburgh, The Scottish Government, St Andrew’s House, March 2009. PDF
Rowe et al
Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, & Early Intervention .