Skip to main content

How Facial Expressions of Adults Affect Children

The Peace Planet -School Of Life

And How Our Smiles Affect Our Students

December 5, 2018

“W-w-w, why is your face like that?”


When you look at this boy’s face, what do you see? His head is turned, his brow is furrowed, his eyes are looking up and to his right and his mouth is slightly open. This is my son, Titus. We were at the Washington Park Zoo. A few years later, I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink, with the late afternoon sun in my face -and I was squinting. Titus came up beside me and leaned around to read my face. He stuttered, “Mommy, w-w-w why is your face like that?” I realized that he was trying to make sense of my seemingly negative expression. So I quickly put on a warm smile and explained my expression to him. He relaxed and went off to play.

Kenny Rogers sang, “Son, I’ve made a life, out of reading people’s faces, knowing what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.”  We could add, “Knowing what their mood was by the way they held their face…” In fact, this comes naturally to humans. We do it on a “need to know basis”. And we do it from birth. A sincere smile indicates positive emotions, such as amusement, happiness, and pleasure. Indeed, “smiling . . . seems built into our nature,” noted an article in Observer, an online journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Even newborns, the article said, are able to “interpret facial expressions with great precision.” The article also stated: “Not only do people deduce useful information from smiles, they also use this knowledge to direct their own behavior.” (Think of the implications for our classrooms! )

"When you smile you may also be doing yourself a favor. The benefits, studies suggest, include increased confidence and happiness and reduced feelings of stress. Frowning, by comparison, may have the opposite effect." -Awake! Magazine.

Smiling is an outward show of an inward feeling, but it is also a message that we send, a gift that we give, consciously or unconsciously, proactively or reactively. Our students read our faces. All it takes is a fraction of a second. Our warm expression will relax them, bring them relief and make them feel loved. The absence of a smile can make them nervous, feel rejected or even scorned. You might recall that to be nervous means that we automatically have less control over our thoughts, our bodies and our behavior. Can you remember having made mistakes for this very reason?  In "The Zones Of Regulation", by Michelle Garcia Winner, the feeling of nervousness is identified as being in the "Yellow Zone"  In the Yellow Zone, one experiences a heightened level of energy, a lessened amount of focus and a loss of some control. Is it any wonder that it can be easier to make mistakes while in the Yellow Zone in front of an authority figure?

Karen Murphy, who is the principal at Free Orchards Elementary School where I work, is a champion of trauma awareness and is working hard to lead our school in the direction of trauma sensitive practices -and away from the policies and procedures that have historically made well-intentioned school districts part of the "pipeline to prison". One of her sayings is "fix yer face", which means simply to put a warm expression on your face, consciously and regularly. I deeply appreciate her leadership in connection with increasing awareness of ACEs and educating staff members about trauma informed practices in her methodical, consistent, clear and kind way. A school district cannot turn on a dime, and neither can an elementary school. But our little "aircraft carrier" is making a definite wide turn.

More on how the facial expressions of adults affect children...

Dr. Edward Tronick, from the University of Boston Massachusetts conducted a noteworthy experiment regarding facial expressions between a mother and a baby. The results are fascinating! Notice the powerful negative effect on the baby of the mother refraining from smiling at her baby. It is painful to even watch. 

Watch the “Still Face Experiment”

The Washington Post; June 18, 2016

The research is motivating educators to rethink zero-tolerance discipline policies that punish kids for outbursts that can be signs of trauma and to rally support for efforts to bring more mental health care into schools, where students and families have ready access to them.

“The brain cannot focus when it’s not calm,” said Susan Cole, a Harvard Law School professorand director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, which advocates for “trauma sensitive” schools. “Children have to feel safe enough to learn.

All students need to be -and benefit from being smiled at frequently. But those comments from the Washington Post highlight a crucial point for any Trauma Informed school:  “Naughty behaviors” can easily be connected to trauma. When that is the case, our students need our smiles more than ever. But if we are afraid of inadvertently “rewarding maladaptive behaviors”, we could consider upping our smile game at every other opportunity! It will boost morale for all, and will move many of our students to access the Green Zone, (The Zones Of Regulation, by Michelle Garcia Winner) where they can relax and feel safe, after all, school needs to be a safe-haven. Smiling won't solve all of our problems, but it will reduce our work stress, and reduce the stress levels in our classrooms overall. Smiling more will help us and our student to feel better, perform better, and it will help them know they are loved!

"Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." ~Thich Nhat Hanh

© The Peace Planet -School Of Life

Add Comment

Comments (1)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

We are our children's mirrors, they reflect our moods and actions. Putting on a happy face is one skill we parents need to learn. It is tough but crucial for their mental well-being.


Last edited by Former Member
Copyright © 2020, ACEsConnection. All rights reserved.
Link copied to your clipboard.