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A Blizzard of Concern—Four Ways Winter Freezes a Child’s Education

When the mercury drops, leaves begin to fall, and the days become shorter, you know that winter’s arctic blast can’t be far behind. You tuck away your sandals and lightweight clothing into bins and pull out clothing and footwear with fleece lining, thick rubber soles, and fuzzy tassels.  Life continues on as normal, save for a few extra layers of protection. You will continue your daily errands, your children will continue to walk to school or ride the bus, and you may even intentionally plan outdoor activities to enjoy the cold conditions.

If you are a low-income family struggling to make ends meet, life does not continue as normal. When your boots are rubbish and leak when snow melts, is it worth treading in the snow to run errands or can they wait a few more days? If you don’t have proper clothing to send your child outside in chilly conditions, can you find a ride for them or let them borrow ill-fitting clothes for protection? There are many more decisions involved for your family before heading outside.

In the UK, our mild winters and flat terrain make winter a mild inconvenience. Mountainous regions with extremely cold temperatures and heavy snowfall, winter weather can be downright dangerous. In a region with an elevated terrain, such as Kashmir, students do not have the luxury of catching a bus or having a short ride to school. They must trek across mountainous terrain spanning miles in order to reach their school every day.[1]  If during this journey they do not have the proper clothing and footwear to protect them from the cold, wind, and snow, how does this extended exposure effect a child?

Winter weather conditions can pose several hurdles to a child’s education in developing countries. By examining how cold temperatures can affect a child’s physical state, we can then begin to understand how it will potentially pose problems for the child’s mental state and ability for academic success.

1. Winter affects classroom concentration

Think back to your time in secondary school, and the word “stress” will certainly pop up in your description. Between studying for exams, managing hormones, juggling jobs and extra-curricular activities, you most likely felt a lot of stress during your school years. However, children who are consistently exposed to cold weather are susceptible to another type of stress called “thermal stress.”[2]

Thermal stress refers to the changes that occur in the body and brain when extremely high or low temperatures are encountered. While the body is in this stressed status, its primary focus is regulating core body temperature, storing and preserving energy, and controlling the heart rate.[3]

If the body is stressed, the brain is also working overtime to control all of these processes. A child who has just spent the past hour outside while improperly dressed, battling bitterly cold temperatures, has a body that is handling extreme conditions. If that shivering child is then entering the schoolhouse door, how will this impact their learning?

For starters, a child’s memory can be impacted by these thermal stressors.[2] When the body and brain are concerned with regulating core procedures, there is not much room left to acquire and retain new information. Author Eric Jensen notes that “a strong working memory is critical to academic success.”[4]  A child may be present in the classroom for the day’s lesson, but mentally their brain is busy making sure that the body is adjusting to the surrounding environment. Fractions and grammar become non-vital information to the brain at that moment, thereby relegating the lesson to background noise. If a child isn’t absorbing the lesson being presented, this will present a host of issues throughout both the school day and year.

Our brains use oxygen and glucose for fuel. When these two elements are in short-supply, the brain isn’t ready to acquire and store new information. If a child has burned through their stored energy while battling cold weather on the way to school, their glucose levels will be low. They will have also expended additional oxygen, especially in mountainous areas, in order to fight through wind and bitter chills. Research has shown that glucose levels, whether too high or too low, are linked to weaker cognitive and behavioural outcomes.[4] Facing exposure to cold temperatures not only effects a child’s body, but also hinders their chance at academic success.

2. Winter affects long-term memory

Children from low socio-economic backgrounds face a myriad of hurdles that they need to jump in order to succeed in school. The repeated exposure of cold weather stress, which in turn effects a child’s working memory, will eventually manifest into a long-term problem. When working memory is repeatedly interrupted, the ability for the brain to store new information and categorise it as permanent, long-term data is compromised.[5] For example, classroom lessons on phonics and the alphabet are critical to a child’s ability to read. If a student is unable to process part of the lesson because they are recovering from cold conditions, when the time comes to begin reading, some of the long-term memory recall needed for this process will not occur.

3. Winter affects attendance and dropout rates

In rural areas where busing is not an option, sometimes the only way to get to school is to walk. For children in developing nations, lacking proper hats, mittens, gloves, jackets, and boots makes the journey not only perilous, but also painful. Tingling toes, numb fingers, and wind-burned cheeks make for a long day at school. The cold weather exposure also hastens illness. Children who miss school on a regular basis are much more likely to dropout and not complete their education. As of 2015, 1 in 6 children from low-income countries will not have completed primary school.[6]

Globally, this means that almost 100 million children are not receiving the skills they need to make their future brighter. In turn, this means that the future of their country suffers as well, since an educated workforce is not ready to tackle the country’s largest issues.[6]

4. Winter affects long-term health

We’ve grown up with our mothers and grandmothers chasing behind us with mittens and hats shouting, “Put these on or you’ll catch a cold!” Rolling our eyes, we would begrudgingly comply, even though we didn’t feel it was necessary. However, it turns out that our families were right; there is a direct correlation between cold temperatures and how often we get sick. Colds, flus, and respiratory infections increase when the temperature drops, as the body’s immune system may be compromised from spending excessive time in harsh conditions.[7]

Children who get sick and can’t go to school miss valuable instruction, which is often difficult to replicate through worksheets alone. Children who become sick repeatedly because their bodies struggle to recover from illness will miss even more school. If a child is not in the classroom, they are not receiving the instruction they need, which therefore leads to an increased risk of dropping out.

A quality education is vital to lifting children in developing nations out of poverty. For every year of schooling that a child receives, their individual earning increases by approximately 10%.[8] Even though a child may be present in school, they need to be engaged in active learning while in the classroom in order for those gains to be present.

When a child is exposed to bitter temperatures and sharp wind chills, their bodies are not the only things effected. Without proper clothing and footwear, a child has tender fingers, toes, and cheeks open to the elements. This same lack of clothing also lashes their minds as well, especially when the cold exposure happens during their journey to school. If these young people had access to warm jackets, hats, gloves, and boots, their journey to school would not only be more comfortable, but it would make their day at school more productive. Ultimately, children who have their basic needs met and are ready to learn once they enter the classroom are better equipped to utilise their education, achieve better salaries, and provide valuable services needed in their country.

 


 

[1]  http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/afghan/afghan-narrative.html

[2] Batra, Promila. “Effect of Temperature on Memory.” Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology 31.1-2 (2005): 43-48. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.

[3] Stephen Dowling 7 January 2014. (n.d.). What effect does extreme cold have on the human body? Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140107-what-extreme-cold-does-to-human

[4] Wang, C,  Szabo, J.S., & Dykman, R.A. (2004) Effects of a carbohydrate supplement upon resting brain activity. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 39(2), 126-138

[5] Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

[6] “Education for All 200-2015.” En.unesco.org. UNESCO, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2017

[7] Seltenrich, Nate. “Between Extremes: Health Effects of Heat and Cold.” EHP Environmental Health Perspectives 123.11 (2015): n. pag. Web.

[8] Counts, Education. “Education Counts Towards the Millennium Development Goals.” Ec-4-50 (2010): n. pag. UNESCO. UNESCO, 2011. Web. 26 Oct. 2016

 

 

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