Auditory distractions can negatively impact your ADHD child's academic performance. A certain kind of sound, called white noise, may block out those distractions and help your child focus on schoolwork.
How Do Auditory Distractions Worsen ADHD Symptoms?
For those without ADHD, it may be hard to imagine how commonplace background noises like a tapping pencil, a cough, or the rustling of paper might disturb concentration. Yet for your ADHD child, these classroom sounds can make focusing on a lesson impossible.
''Seemingly harmless to those with normal brains, the gentle strikes of No. 2 pencils hammered my ADHD brain like blows in a steel foundry.'' These are the words of noted ADHD blogger Dennis Cootey, describing his experience of taking an exam in an otherwise quiet room.
During homework time, your ADHD child is fighting to focus against other kinds of auditory assaults: the beeping of a microwave, the clattering of dishes, or the droning of the television are just a few of the many household noises pulling your child's attention away from school assignments.
What if there were a way to block out the ambient noises of everyday life, sharpening your ADHD child's focus and improving concentration and memory? A special kind of sound called ''white noise'' can provide these benefits and promote academic success.
What is White Noise?
White noise is made up of random sounds, covering the whole spectrum of audible frequencies. For most people, low-volume white noise just fades into the background. But for people with ADHD, it can push away auditory distractions.
Some types of white noise are found in nature. These include:
- Babbling brooks
- Rushing wind
- Moderate rainfall
- Waves lapping on the sand
Other types of white noise can be mechanically generated, such as the noises produced by:
- Electric fans
- Computer fans in a desktop or laptop
- Air purifiers
White noise covers a range of sound, including color-named variations with different characteristics. Pink noise emphasizes the lower frequencies more than pure white noise. Brown noise, also known as red noise, boosts the lower frequencies even more than pink noise. Some people find pink or brown noise more soothing than unfiltered white noise, as they buffer some of its intensity. All of these color variations can generically be referred to as white noise.
White noise can block out ambient sounds. It has been used in courtrooms for over fifteen years to keep sidebar discussions private. Simply by masking common auditory disturbances, it could help keep your ADHD child from being driven to distraction. But there may be even more to the story of how white noise could benefit your ADHD child academically.
How Can White Noise Be Used to Improve Academic Performance?
A 2007 study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, proposed that white noise may increase attention in ADHD children through a phenomenon called stochastic resonance. Stochastic resonance is essentially the strengthening of a signal through the addition of random noise. It can be observed in both physics and neurobiology. In the context of ADHD and academics, adding some form of background noise (in this case, white noise) to a weak neurological signal can boost the signal, leading to gains in cognitive performance.
The 2007 study found that ADHD children exposed to white noise did perform better on tests of memory. These results were replicated in a similar study undertaken in 2010.
A recent study in 2016 compared the performance of ADHD children listening to white noise to their non-ADHD peers. In one part of the study, the ADHD children received their normal stimulant medications. The same three tests were also performed without stimulant medication. According to the findings, ''white noise exposure led to significant improvements for both non-medicated and medicated ADHD children.'' Further, the study concluded, ''exposure to white noise resulted in a task improvement that was larger than the one with stimulant medication.''
All three studies indicated that white noise helps children with ADHD to better perform in tests of memory. However, white noise worsened concentration for the non-ADHD children in the studies.
Based on these studies in the classroom, white noise could also be an effective tool to help your child block out auditory distractions and maintain attention while studying and completing school assignments at home. Tess Messer, founder and editor of the Primarily Inattentive ADD blog, and author of Ten Tips to Help Your ADHD Student Succeed, reports that her ADHD son uses white noise almost constantly at home to help him focus.
Even if you can't find the right white noise to enhance your child's study time, consider using it as a sleep aid. Michele M. Cook, a writer and ADHD mom of two ADHD boys, describes her family's use of white noise: ''I actually find it distracting with the exception of things like having a fan running to help me and the kids sleep.''
If white noise consistently helps your child sleep better, it can indirectly improve academic performance.
Where to Find White Noise
Before you commit to buying a CD of white noise or a white noise machine, look for free sources of white noise that you can try with your child. If you have a ceiling fan or a portable electric fan, you already have simple white noise generators. There are many options to find types of white noise that suit your child:
White Noise Machines
White noise machines are purpose-built to produce white noise in the home. However, they can be somewhat limited in the range of sounds they produce. Some users complain that they can hear sounds ''looping'' (as the sound recordings reach their end and are replayed); however, several models are made without looped sounds.
These machines can also be subject to mechanical breakdown over time. And, while somewhat compact, they are not as portable as a smartphone or MP3 player.
Many white noise apps are available for both iPhones and Android phones. A lot of them are free, and you can find them with a simple web search.
Be careful of volume levels, especially if your child is listening to white noise using headphones or earbuds. Remember that prolonged exposure to any sound at too high a volume can cause permanent hearing damage.
YouTube is rife with free white noise videos that can be played in the background. Many of them run for hours. Some of them mix nondescript white noise with nature sounds, such as a waterfall, a gentle rain, birds in a forest, or ocean waves. Your child can try many different kinds of white noise, all for free.
Online Noise Generators
Several websites, such as MyNoise, offer free white noise generators. MyNoise lets your child customize sound frequencies and levels to find the right mix of white noise or its variants. There are several presets available on the right sidebar underneath the noise generator sliders at the top of the page.
The noise generator can even be calibrated for your child's specific hearing range. Have your child experiment to find the levels that best enhance concentration. If you need a portable version for your child, you can download the MyNoise app for iOS or Android.
Deciding Which Type Suits Your Child
Using the resources discussed in this article, you and your child can experiment with different types of white noise played at different volumes. Your child will probably enjoy the process of exploring all of the different white noise combinations, and both of you will be pleased when the right combination leads to increased concentration on schoolwork.
Some children use music as a concentration aid in place of white noise. Bestselling author and speaker Deborah Reber, who founded TiLT Parenting for families of ''differently-wired'' children, explains that her ADHD son, Asher, ''listens to classical music or Hans Zimmer when he wants to buckle down and focus.''
There is no magic formula for knowing which type of sound would best suit your child. But the research suggests that it's worth trying white noise. With so many resources so readily available, white noise could be a simple way to improve your ADHD child's academic performance.