The impact of fireworks on learning may have been underestimated as a factor that potentially limits some pupils’ capacity to access the curriculum. In terms of equipping all children and young people for future learning, sensitivity to environmental noise needs to be addressed, particularly in times of conflict. Also, our neurodivergent pupils may need time to centre themselves and recover from the inevitability of raised arousal levels. These sensitivities may manifest as excitability, anxiety and uncertainty around elevated exposure to noise. The increased stress from environmental noise exposure is a form of cognitive load. It is generally emotionally charged (loud, violent and unpredictable) with the availability of attentional resources diminished, working memory function compromised and access to learning constrained.
In this post I’ll unpack the ways in which resilience to environmental stress is influenced by regulatory circuits in the brain. These circuits process relative levels of adversity and support in the social environment and determine whether a person is more likely to approach or avoid neutral situations. When the emotion regulatory circuits are functioning well, people are protected against environmental stressors and sensory overload.
Researchers have found, for example, that children who grew up in inner cities, compared with those from rural areas, were more likely to have increased activity in the brain region of the regulatory circuit that is conditioned by social stress and adversity. In such instances, the ‘amygdala’ was implicated in children’s educational outcomes because it is particularly threat-oriented. This area of the brain drives fear-based responses and can modify behaviour by reallocating attentional resources to survival-type behaviours such as fighting back, escaping (absconding) or shutting down and withdrawing.
The capacity to down-regulate (relax) the amygdala is important for the development of social resilience, and this is best supported by a stable social network of friends and family, an inclusive school community and a healthy lifestyle. Researchers have proposed that oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding, protected individuals including those suffering from PTSD, hyper-arousal and high blood pressure: it also enhanced the management of stressful experiences.
Fireworks create a ‘spectacle’ and if we include the earliest ‘fire-crackers’ they have been used by humans for more than two thousand years: imagine hearing the noises which were created naturally when bamboo stems were thrown in the fire. Air exploded loudly in the narrow stems and as far as people were concerned these sounds were protective - because they were larger than life and were considered a force for good.
At least five hundred years later, experiments with gunpowder in China generated the first man-made fireworks. Their use spread rapidly from Italy, across Europe and eventually to the U.S.. Their function was to illuminate palaces and castles at night time and to exaggerate the wealth and status of the land owners, long before people had electricity. Rhythmically vigorous music was usually deployed to amplify the theatrical effect, just as it is today.
The whole point of fireworks has remained the same: to enchant people, to impress them and to manipulate their perceptions. When fireworks were first used by the wealthy, no doubt in competition with one another, the effect would also have astounded local people, further exaggerating the hierarchical relationship between land owners and workers.
We are the only living species that has achieved mastery of fire as a tool. From cooking to metal working, from the combustion engine to missiles, we’ve found ways to harness fire in remarkable ways, such as:
This year, people are suffering in so many ways from the most destructive aspects of fire: the impact of rockets and shelling has tragically impacted communities around the world. As we light up and set off fireworks, let’s contemplate the fact that these sound effects signify death and mutilation to so many people, including traumatised refugees who have sought safety in welcoming countries and those who are suffering in war zones. Nearer to home, the sounds of fireworks will have some people bracing, cowering, shaking and flinching, not only this year, but for many more in the future.
Having said this, fireworks are widely available and are frequently used for all manner of celebrations. Some people mark anniversaries and religious festival days with their brightly coloured lights and spectacular sounds, and as a global community we all celebrate New Year with them. Although they are generally used to bring people together for special occasions, many children and animals are naturally frightened by their overwhelming effects and they can cause panic, anxiety and fear, as well as generate sensory overload and confusion.
The fire in the family hearth can roar, crackle and pop, whereas the sounds of fireworks whistle, scream and bang. This manipulation of manmade fire reminds us of violent sounds associated with war and fear. The sounds of fireworks exploit two different mechanisms. First consider the narrow tube - just like the original bamboo stem: this is the vessel - the container of the ‘managed’ sound. The second mechanism depends on the type of chemical reaction, which determines whether the flame burns quickly or slowly. The quick reactions are more explosive, whereas the slower ones are more expressive.
Our auditory system is the first sensory system to develop in utero from about 19 weeks in gestation. From these very early days, the auditory system appraises the sounds of the environment while the foetus develops. We are wired to scan the environment using all our senses, but arguably, the most important and sensitive of these is the auditory system.
This system differentiates between the variety of emotional content of early memories, by processing the neutral ones in the left hemisphere of the brain, whereas upsetting early memories are processed in the right side. Researchers discovered that sensitivity to sound processing was more pronounced in the right than the left hemisphere, and that this occurred during recall of upsetting rather than neutral memories. The converse was also true. So, processing neutral memories was clearer in the left hemisphere, whereas auditory processing was less acute on the left side.
People with a history of childhood trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have more activation of their right hemisphere when recalling difficult memories, and can be expected to be highly sensitive to sound. Every person diagnosed with a debilitating condition such as PTSD suffers a unique array of lived experiences and challenging risk factors. It’s also reasonable to generalise that this disorder reduces resilience, with people in this situation more likely to avoid a noisy environment as a way to prevent traumatic memories and emotional distress from resurfacing.
Before the fireworks season begins, there is an opportunity for teachers to discuss the sounds that fireworks make and their impact. Naming and explaining things makes them less overwhelming, as well as easier to manage and process. Onomatopoeia - the literary device used to identify sound effects such as ‘bang’, is an obvious approach to take. Rather than simply referring to the novelty of the ‘fun’ sounds in fireworks, it’s also important to consider the unpleasant experiences that some children and young people in the classroom may need to have acknowledged, honoured and respected by their teacher. These pupils may very well wish that they could avoid being exposed to fireworks altogether.
Having included everyone’s points of view, the topic of ‘fireworks’ offers a huge opportunity for vocabulary development. A strong relationship between vocabulary and social background is well known as it exists the majority of research studies. Why not immerse children in evaluative language when discussing fireworks by:
If there are children in your class who are sensitive to the sound effects produced by fireworks, it may be helpful to embody the suddenness of the sounds by moving to music using starburst style movements, jumping jacks and also using art to release some of the complexity and intensity of any potentially overwhelming experiences.
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