We all have that friend who whatever they might be saying they just have a miserable looking face. Or maybe it’s that friend who has a dry sense of humour – really funny sayings out of the mouth but a blank facial expression. Then of course, there’s the other friend who grins incessantly even when the subject is serious.
Our facial expressions and body language often say so much more than the words that come out of our mouths. Whilst visiting schools up and down the country I’ve seen so many animated, warm, nurturing styles of connecting with children and young people and I’ve also seen many stern, cold, serious and sometimes angry looking faces.
We need to be so careful about our body language with young people, particularly those vulnerable young people to whom the fear response in their brains are wired to hypervigilance.
I heard of a study in America some time ago of a group of students and what they remembered from a particular lesson. Half the group were considered to be vulnerable in some way and the other half not. Once the lesson was over both groups had a list of questions about the content of the lesson and other things such as the colour of the teachers socks, the number of ceiling tiles, what was happening outside of the windows etc.
The ones considered not vulnerable answered all the content questions right but not many of the other questions, whereas the vulnerable students answered all the non-content questions right and not many of the content.
I see this so often in my own children. They are so sensitive to the environment and the non-verbal communication – they often miss what’s coming out of our mouths.
Sometimes when I’ve been in schools the way teachers or staff have spoken to students has scared and surprised me! Not to say that we always have to be happy, but what we know about children’s sense of shame and how they might feel about themselves, we know that being humiliated and scared does not motivate, it only compounds the sense of shame.
I wonder what we are trying to achieve by using our ‘stern’ faces with children and young people? Do we somehow thing they will change their behaviour as a result, or miraculously be able to cope with their own anxiety enough to feel safe and be calm?
What I do know is that the way we make people feel about themselves helps to motivate and to create the kind of connection and environment that enables children to learn and grow.
So, today as you’re out and about with people – whether young people or adults – think about how your facial expression might make them feel, ask yourself,
- What are they feeling right now and how can I help them to feel safe with me?
- Will my stern approach change their behaviour long term?
- What part of their brain am I activating now through my non-verbal communication?
- What can I do right now to help them to regulate their emotions?
- What’s the most important thing right now – to fuel connection or drive disconnection? (Brenee Brown)
As an aside you may not be aware that we now do onsite training on Therapeutic Conversations – how to truly connect with vulnerable students. Ask us for more details.