El Nino and our children in schools

El Nino and our children in schools

Javier Luque 13 agosto 2015 Comments

El Nino is coming, El Nino will have a strong impact… These are some the headlines of many newspapers in Latin America and the Caribbean. The media usually discusses whether governments are investing enough to mitigate possible natural disasters caused by El Nino in the short term. Yet, they rarely talk about how this phenomenon can impact child development, and they almost never mention how can this phenomenon or climate, in general, affect educational outcomes.

The term “environment” appears several times in education or education policy texts. Schools must have an adequate educational environment with correct relationships between parents, teachers, and students. The classroom should encourage a harmonious environment among students and teachers. But it is very rare to hear the term environment referring to conditions of temperature, humidity, wind, air quality, etc. Does this matter? Well, it does. What could happen in the classrooms if the temperature suddenly increased by 6 ºC as predicted in the worst scenarios of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)?


The organizational climate is very important, but climate defined as environment and atmospheric conditions is also relevant. Economic development literature has found that tropical countries tend to have a lower level of economic development. In addition, climate affects the institutional development processes and thus the organizational environment. Available literature on the impact of climate in the production process is more specific. Evidence from already 60 years ago shows that temperatures above 27 °C tend to produce physiological damage that affects efficiency at work. In fact, this is something that Herrington shows in a study published in 1952, but that we have known intuitively for much longer. The most straight forward way to deal with hot weather has been to install air conditioning. In certain areas of the world, there is abundant literature on the role of the introduction of air conditioning in the workplace to foster development, particularly in the south of the United States as Jeff Biddle published in 2012. The reaction in the world of work has been clear: let’s convert our offices in huge refrigerators.

Is there any link between education, climate and development? The economic development process is complex and there is no doubt about the importance of education in it. Regarding climate, there are many studies that determine how it affects educational processes. In his study published in 1960, Nolan showed that higher temperatures had a negative relationship with the learning process. Similarly, McDonald noted that classrooms with air conditioning presented more comfortable conditions.

In the last years, I have had the opportunity to visit a large number of schools around the world, many of them in areas with high temperatures and humidity. Besides my dehydration, a common pattern emerged in these visits, children and teachers struggle against the heat to stay alert in class, but unfortunately, in many cases, the heat wins the battle making them lose the opportunity to learn.

A big part of Latin America and the Caribbean is located in areas with an average temperature above 27 °C. Many of these areas have taken steps to mitigate the effects of high temperatures on the educational process. For example, classes begin at dawn and end before noon. Others establish holidays during the summer. However, additional measures are needed. Changes in the daily schedule are insufficient in areas where the temperature does not record major variations between day and night, and in many areas there are not significant differences between summer and winter.

The policy implication is clear as Mosle indicated in 2013: “Talking about teaching XXI century skills in classrooms that resemble sweaty 19th-century workshops is absurd.” In the United States most of the schools have air conditioning systems, even though there are very few months when the temperature raises above  27 °C. Clearly, air conditioning for all schools in Latin America and the Caribbean is not a viable solution in the medium-term. It is too expensive and creates a high demand for electricity. Also, using that much technology would impact climate change. Still, we need to design schools taking the climate into account by searching for natural shadows, high ceilings, use of natural ventilation, etc. The most popular solution is installing fans, but in many cases, schools do not have electricity and have little resources to improve conditions.

Also, it is necessary to constantly look for solutions from other sectors different from education and bring them to schools. If we ultimately approach the worst case scenario, weather conditions would become even more adverse to the provision of education services in many places of the region.

El Nino phenomenon and the temperature raise will make the 2016 school year more challenging for our students. In the short term, it is necessary to take measures by adjusting class schedules and school days. In the long term, there is a clear need to guarantee that schools have adequate conditions to foster learning, including a comfortable temperature.


    One thought on “El Nino and our children in schools

    1. Helen Abadzi

      Interestingly, temperature affects the ability to make decisions.
      Increases of a mere 5°F in temperature (against the ‘most comfortable’ 72°) significantly reduced cognitive performance on a variety of cognitive tasks (proofreading; choosing between two cell phone plans; choosing between an innovative or a traditional product).
      Maybe warmer temperatures, which require our body to exert cooling efforts, deplete glucose levels (cooling ourselves down is apparently more effortful than warming ourselves up), leaving less energy available for cognition.
      Cheema, A., & Patrick V. M. (2012).  Influence of Warm Versus Cool Temperatures on Consumer Choice: A Resource Depletion Account. Journal of Marketing Research. 49(6), 984 – 995.

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