Non-verbal indicators, particularly facial expressions, can be a powerful motivator or a source of misunderstanding. Dave Stott gives advice on how to interpret them and how to use them to good effect

Take a few moments to retrace the first stages of meeting a pupil or another person for the first time:

  1. How long did it take you to form an opinion of the other person or pupil?
  2. What key indicators did you use to help form that opinion (style of greeting, overall appearance or style of dress, words used, etc)?
  3. Did you notice the other person’s or pupil’s facial expression?

Don’t forget that while you are using all of the above indicators to form your impression or opinion of the other person or pupil, they too are doing exactly the same to you!

What impact did their facial expression have on you? Did they appear interested and keen to meet with you? Did their expression give you a clue as to how they were feeling (nervous smile or giggling, or inappropriate and over-friendly laughing, dark, moody and sullen)?

In the same way that we tend to mirror voice style and volume when speaking to another person, we are often led emotionally by the facial expression of that person.

It is also easy to completely misunderstand a facial expression, making it quite difficult to empathise or interact with the other person. How does the comment ‘Come on cheer up – it may never happen!’ make you feel? Someone’s misinterpretation of your facial expression could change your happy mood to annoyance and irritation. Transfer the same scenario into a school environment and note how misunderstandings of facial expressions can lead to problems.

Comments such as ‘Don’t look like that when I’m speaking to you’ are not helpful and will almost certainly be viewed as confrontational by a pupil. He or she may be thinking exactly the same about you! Can you be certain that the facial expression being used by a pupil clearly demonstrates his or her emotional state? Does he or she really mean to look; bored, aggressive, nervous, disinterested or arrogant? How self-aware are the pupils you are working with, and how aware are you of your own expressions?

Practical Tips
It is worth having a second look at some of the excellent resources provided by the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) resource when undertaking work on self awareness and empathy.

Both primary and secondary resources contain some awareness raising activities and specific teaching points regarding understanding and interpreting non verbal signals, body language and the use of facial expressions.

Consider the everyday situation of a whole-school assembly, or a class/tutor group meeting and watch members of staff as they manage behaviour using only non-verbal signals, ie predominantly facial expressions. What evidence do you have that the pupils being targeted with these management strategies actually understand the meaning behind the expressions? If they don’t how successful will the strategy be?

Working directly with pupils, try using photographs, film, mirrors or role play to build up a feelings vocabulary. How accurate are pupil in identifying some or all of the following emotions purely from facial expressions?

Abandoned BewilderedDelighted ExasperatedAlarmed UselessDefeated TrappedEager InfuriatedHostile Hysterical Impatient FlusteredTense Touchy Worried RelievedDejected HopefulBitter ViolentInadequate


Ask pupils to note down their initial reactions to particular expressions and then compare interpretations with a partner. Are they different? Which emotions are more difficult to identify? How does your own behaviour or emotion change when presented with differing facial expressions?

The natural progression from accurately identifying different facial expressions is to understand the effect those expressions have on your own behaviour. Try role-playing activities where one partner is displaying a totally inappropriate expression, while the other tries to engage in a conversation or instruction.

In one-to-one meetings with pupils it is also worth drawing attention to early warning signs and messages the pupil may unknowingly be transmitting to an adult via their non-verbal signals and expressions.

An inability to clearly interpret these signals can, and often does, lead to misunderstandings and possibly confrontations. Say what you mean, and mean what you say, remembering that the recipient of your message or communication may be failing to understand the full or complete meaning due to either your inappropriate facial expressions or their own inability to understand the non-verbal messages.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2011

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.