ALDs in the Classroom

On my page about Auditory Processing Disorder, someone had enquired if using ALDs (Assistive Listening Devices) in the classroom would be helpful. Her daughter, like many students, did not want to be singled out by using them and perceived by her peers as being “weird”. I thought I would expand upon the response to include more information. Please note that these suggestions are slated more toward APD and general educational design suggestions, rather than toward ALD equipment for students with severe hearing loss.

Although ALDs do work to an extent, they may not be the best choice for some situations. We should also note that although schools focus on the deficiencies of the student’s hearing, listening comprehension, or attention, quite frequently some of the deficiencies are really in the design of the school classrooms. These make it more difficult for students with APD, ADHD, or hyperacussis, and they also make it more tiring for the instructors who must spend all day trying to talk over noisy environments, and for the other students. (More on this aspect in the latter part of this post.)

One type of ALD is an FM or infrared system that involves a microphone (for the teacher) and receiver headphones (for the student). Naturally this is highly visible, so not everyone wants to be singled out in this manner.

The microphone must be positioned correctly, so the speaker’s voice does not fade in and out of range (you may have experienced this yourself when sitting in presentations or conferences). Of course, both pieces of the equipment needs to have fresh batteries and be in good repair, or it’s useless.

Sometimes microphones with speakers are recommended for teachers so they can broadcast better to the students in the back of the room. Usually the speakers are not high quality, and such systems just add to the amount of noise, rather than improving the clarity of communication!

Because the microphone is used by the primary speaker, it presents problems if anyone else in the classroom speaks. Either the mike is passed around when there are group discussions or questions, or the listener does not get comments and queries by the other students in the room. The latter not only removes a layer of information, but can also lead to reduce social inclusiveness because the person with the headphones loses the small commentaries that may not be part of the formal instruction, but are part of the socialisation and informal culture of the classroom. Even if the microphone does get passed around, the other students’ lack of familiarity with holding the mike where it can pick up their voices and the considerable junk-noise of passing the microphone do not improve the listening experience.

I will say that there are special situations when an ALD such as this would be especially good, such as when the teacher is doing instruction during a bus ride, in noisy places like zoos, factory tours, science museums and so on. It should also be made clear (and probably reminded) to the teacher that PA announcements are often unintelligible to people with APD (or hearing loss) — this means that messages will need to be passed on, and the teacher should not rely on the student being able to follow those announcements, except where they are simply following the herd of students. (I’ve had my family page me at airports and other places, and I not only couldn’t understand the page, I couldn’t even tell that I was the one being paged!)

There are alternatives to using an ALD, which should be considered and probably tried before deciding to use the ALD.

Students with APD should get “preferential seating”, which is often used for ADHD students as well. This means sitting near the teacher and/or instruction board or instruction area. The point is to reduce the amount of space and distractions between the student and the source of information. This is especially helpful if the student does some lip-reading (not everyone with APD is even aware they do this).

The teacher should be careful to not address the students when writing on the board. (Unfortunately, most teachers start out very conscientious, and then after a few days revert back to their old habits.) The student will have to get in the habit of asking, “What was that?” or “Can you repeat that?” or may have to advocate after the fact. Meaning, when everyone has started on the work, raising her hand, and then when the teacher comes by to talk with her, point out that the teacher was talking to the board (again) and she couldn’t understand everything. She could also have a special hand-signal to make when the teacher turns back around from the board, to alert the teacher of the missed communication.

Have the instructor turn on captions to broadcast media — these are good for the ESL students, and they help the other students catch the terms and spelling of details they need from the program. It’s best for the teacher to not point out that they are turning on the captions for your daughter specifically — just turn them on, and if anyone asks, simply explain that they are on so everyone can more easily understand the dialog. That’s the truth; there’s no one need for one person to be singled out.

As I referred to earlier, the classroom design can aggravate APD and ADHD difficulties. Not all of the problem should be set at the feet of the student!

“Noise” is composed of a number of factors. Most people just think of the volume (measured in decibels). But there is also the complexity factor — it’s hard to focus on one sound source when there are other sound sources going on at the same time. There is also the noise-to-signal-ratio factor where clarity is important, and clarity can be lost from not just background noise, but also echoes, unclear speech, and poor transmission equipment (fuzzy speakers, tinny receivers and so on).

ALDs are often recommended because the student (or employee) is having trouble hearing or understanding because the room is atmospherically noisy. This is in large part due to bad environmental design — too many hard surfaces, noisy HVAC (air conditioners, radiators, fans), various kinds of equipment, lots of voices at once and so on. Please note that “noisy equipment” does not mean it has to be loud by OSHA standards — students who are distractible and/or have APD problems and/or hyperacussis will find the noise levels in an average classroom to be more of a problem than many of their peers. (This also applies to many students with autism.)

Things like area rugs, draperies and acoustic tiles (or new, much more effective acoustic tiles) will help muffle a lot of the echo and reverberation. Turning off equipment when it’s not being used helps more than people realise, and is also important to save energy. If there are times when multiple instruction is going on (for example, an aide helping a few students) then setting up an area with a couple of those portable, upholstered cubicle-type dividers will help not only your student, but also be more effective for the aide and the other students. It’s always easier to “sell” an idea when the benefits to numbers of people are described.

I don’t believe that students with ADHD or APD should not even be in settings with the “open classroom” design that was in vogue some decades ago, as having several different classes and multiple instructions and larger numbers of students milling around is just too much to deal with effectively. Schools that have tried to retrofit open classroom areas into individual classrooms often end up with inadequate materials (due to budgetary issues). Unfortunately, merely pulling a folding divider wall between two rooms does not adequately damp all the noise that seeps through. A suspended (common) ceiling that is sometimes added along with the partitions does not effectively mute sound, but rather serves to transmit the sounds from one room to the next.

Likewise, rows of file cabinets are also poor excuses for walls between “rooms” in libraries or other resource rooms. It’s hard for adults to work in such environments, so I don’t know why we expect that children should find it easy. Furthermore, pretending that experiencing classes in such poorly-divided greatrooms is good practice for working in “cubicle farms” is nothing more than piss-poor rationalisation, what Alfie Kohn refers to as “getting hit on the head lessons” (justifying bad educational practices as preparation for more of the same).

Sadly, there are a great many districts that are suffering from insufficient classroom space. Teachers and students end up in a variety of locations that were never meant to be classrooms, and have had only minimal modifications, usually hanging up a whiteboard and cramming in some desks and chairs. In addition to features like thin, hollow “temporary” walls that have been there for years, odd room shapes or cramped conditions (including putting the board on a free wall rather than one that works with the traffic flow or desk orientation), and ventilation quirks we often find that these ad hoc classrooms are poorly placed with respect to other functions of the school.

Usually school architects try to create noise-buffer zones between the classrooms and the other functional areas of the school, such as the gymnasium, lunch room, kitchen, power plant, or specialty classrooms such as shop (wood/metal/engine working) or band instruction. These desperation classrooms are stuck in all sorts of bad locations, even in part of the custodian’s storage area. I remember having my Government class in a tiny room set in the back hallway by the gymnasium (it was probably once the coaches’ office), and the students reached the room by virtue of going through the boys’ or girls’ locker room. We spent the entire time assaulted by the locker room and pool chlorine smells, and the instructor had to talk over the noise from the adjoining gymnasium and natatorium.

Many older school buildings were designed in eras when passive lighting and ventilation were more commonplace. These frequently have high ceilings hung with banks of fluorescent lights and tall windows that are usually shaded by metal blinds. Those high ceilings and the hard surfaces combine to accentuate the noise echo and reverberation, and the banks of fluorescent lights are often noisy in their own regard. Because the fans are beneath the windows, the air flow will create ripples and rattles in the blinds, even when teachers try to pin down the bottoms of the blinds with stacks of extra textbooks. These are the sorts of rooms where general amplification speakers are especially un-helpful.

In summary, Assistive Listening Devices are helpful for reducing some of the noise-to-signal ratio.  However, they cannot substitute for effective interpersonal communication skills, and can only mediate some kinds of environmental noise problems.  They are not an easy fix to the problems faced by a student with APD.  As I have mentioned before, our various assistive devices do not remove our cure our problems, but rather, are part of the system of coping methods.


  1. 29 June 2011 at 17:29

    Thank you for writing this and your “living with auditory processing disorder” post. I was diagnosed with dyslexia and with auditory processing difficulties only 6 months ago and am still finding out what this means for me and my career (I teach maths to adults who didn’t get the qualifications they needed at school).
    For a long time, I described myself to my students as having hearing problems. I explained to them that I’ll be able to hear that someone is talking to me, and when I know them well, I’ll be able to recognise the voice of the person who is talking to me, but I probably won’t hear what their saying the first time they say it. This is now all explained by the APD, but I’ll probably hang on to this explanation as it’s easy for people to understand. I’m still finding out what help there is for me and I suspect I’ll be reading your blog quite a bit.

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    14 January 2008 at 22:38

    Dear Frustrated,

    I have been looking into this very same problem myself, and will post some information in a couple of days!


  3. Anonymous frustrated blogger said,

    14 January 2008 at 16:39

    Andrea of Buzzing About:

    Sorry to be way off topic, but I wasn’t sure how else to get in touch.

    From the fact that you have a “fair use” statement on your blog, I’m guessing that you have run into your own problems with people trying to steal some of your text for use on their own blogs. I have recently run into some frustration around this issue myself and was wondering if you would be comfortable talking about your own experiences as a blogger, both in terms of how you educated yourself about copyright law (any links you can recommend other than the one you reference in your statement? Particularly international ramifications, not just US and Europe?) and in terms of communicating with individuals (assuming there’s even a way to get in contact!) who have taken your text without notification, permission, or even an explicit acknowledgment of the source of their material. And who insist (even while ever so pleasantly offering to not do it again if you just ask) that they did nothing wrong, they were just following “standard practice”.

    To be honest, I guess I’m also looking for a chance to vent. Because this is, ARRGH!

    If you’re not comfortable with this, or if you simply don’t have time or whatever, I’ll understand. You have my email if you choose to get in contact; in fact we’ve been in contact before.

    You don’t need to post this comment since it’s really directed at you, not at your blog readers. I’m signing “anonymous” in case it does go up, so that the person/people I’m thinking of won’t realize it’s them I’m complaining them.

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