My two teenage daughters started going to school again after the second lockdown.
On the first day, both of them came back from school exhausted and having headaches. They wore masks for about ten hours with JUST a couple of breaks in between, all according to the school’s protocol.
In this post, I will discuss how children learn best and how wearing masks at school can influence the learning abilities of children from the point of view of biology and neuroscience.
Learning is obviously the function of the brain. And the brain is the second most energy-consuming organ in the body after the liver, followed by the heart muscle.
How is energy produced in the human body? It is released by burning, or the oxidation reaction.
The body has a choice of burning carbs (sugars), fats, or in the worst case proteins. In any of these reactions, it needs … exactly, OXIGEN!
Pupils in the school of my daughters are supposed to stay in their classrooms in order not to mix up with other classes. In the classroom itself, they are supposed to keep the 1.5m distance from everyone else.
These rules are inevitably leading to movement restriction. And the less movement is allowed the more time children will spend sitting.
What effect does it have on the brain and learning?
The full lung capacity of an adult makes up 4l for women and 6l liters for men. Sounds like a lot, right?
But normal breathing at rest (tidal breathing) is using merely 0.5l of the total volume.
The breathing volume increases immediately when you move or speak loud and shout.
That is what children normally do when they have time and space for playing. So, normally children breathe deeper and get more oxygen into their bodies and blood.
This is very important for general health but in particular for brain and ability to focus and learn.
That means that child’s breathing hindered by masks is further restricted by not being able to move freely.
Studies on oxygen deprivation have shown the link between breathing and cognitive function by proving to cause a range of severe cognitive deficits and impaired task learning.
You can learn because of your brain’s ability to change. This ability is called neuroplasticity.
The brain (nervous system) changes mainly in two ways:
- Disconnection of the existing connections between the cells of the nervous system (synapses between neurons)
- Formation of new connections.
Cognitive function is mostly related to neural plasticity in the prefrontal cortex.
Children naturally challenge their bodies. They try out unusual moves and activate their vestibular system much more than adults usually do.
Studies have shown that physical exercise and balance training (which children practice naturally) induce neural plasticity and improve learning abilities.
The Raviv method even uses exercises challenging the vestibular system to overcome learning difficulties like ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, or dysgraphia with great success.
That also means that if children are not able to move freely their learning abilities may weaken. This will add up to the effect of the restricted breathing capacity.
As already mentioned above, women, girls have a lower lung capacity compared to men or boys.
Besides that, teenage girls will start losing iron due to menstruations and iron plays an important role of the oxygen carrier in the blood.
Women have generally less iron in the blood than men and boys. But this can be exacerbated by a poor diet which is quite common and often leads to iron deficiency.
So, girls will be impacted the most by restrained breathing.
According to the school rules, a child is allowed to take off the mask and take a break if he or she does not feel well, for example, gets a headache.
But if the child does not feel well this means that complicated processes, the most complicated biochemical reactions got disturbed and went wrong already!
And a short break is not proper mitigation to the interruption of the natural processes in the body and brain. Such interruptions should be simply prevented by appropriate measures.
- For best learning, children (and adults) need to have a high supply of oxygen to their brains.
- Deep breathing promoted by unrestricted movement and play throughout the day is very beneficial for oxygen supply in the body and brain.
- Additionally, challenging the vestibular system boosts neural plasticity and learning abilities.
If you want to learn more
I cannot recommend highly enough the brilliant podcast on how to learn faster by Dr. Andrew Huberman, Neuroscience Professor at Stanford University.