How Facial Expressions Can Help With Classroom Management

It’s late in September and the novelty of the new year is beginning to wear off.  I know some students will test the boundaries of appropriate classroom behavior to see what will happen, and others just plain struggle to get through day after day of school.  I find myself remembering a piece of helpful advice I learned in my first year of teaching.

Ms. Cunningham had been a special education teacher for decades, and was probably the most senior member of my school’s staff. That year she was serving as a literacy coach while she pursued her doctorate in education, and so I had the benefit of her eyes on my teaching from time to time.  She was known for being “old school” when it came to classroom management, and students who were unruly most anywhere else wouldn’t dream of it in her classroom.

As she watched me struggle to teach a class with some particularly hyperactive boys, she must have seen a perma-frown forming on my face.

After class, Ms. Cunningham told me, “It takes time, but you’ll have to get really good at doing this–” She turned to her left and made a stern face and shook her index finger at an imaginary student. Then, without skipping a beat, she turned to her right and adjusted her facial expression into a big smile and gestured invitingly at another imaginary student.  It was powerful to watch how she shifted her demeanor with such awareness, having had so much practice.

Our facial expressions are powerful communication tools in our classrooms!  When confronted with difficult behavior from some students, the danger is that we get frustrated and apply our reaction to an entire class of students.

And since teachers “make the weather” in our classrooms (who am I quoting?!), this very human error can be the difference between a positive and negative overall tone of a classroom. Ms. Cunningham was subtly yet concretely showing me how to compensate for the inclination to carry (negative) emotions on our faces from one moment to the next.

An added benefit of this practice is that changing our facial expression can actually change our perception of our own feelings. When we smile, even if it’s fake, our brain releases endorphins that make us feel happier!  (I love to pull this fact out for students who seem to approach a task with a negative attitude, and ask them to “try it out” to see if it works… 99% of the time it does!)

Working with a large group of students in a limited amount of time requires teachers to manage our emotions with more control and speed than we generally do in normal adult life.

Taking a second to consciously reset my facial expression after addressing a negative behavior with a student goes a long way to ensure that the “weather” in my classroom stays fair.

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  • SandyMerz

    Eye Contact Eye Contact Eye Contact

    Kind of like real estate Location, Location, Location.  Eye contact doesn’t come natural to me, but if you and eye, I mean you and I, are ever face to face I’ll be looking right in your eyes. What you won’t know is that holding your eyes is taking about 60% of my attention.  But man does it work.  If it does come natural, you’ve probably never experienced the change in the weather in you class when you do start looking at kids eye to eye.  I don’t know if that counts as an expression but it makes a huge decision. 

    I don’t know if this counts either, but in a high concept class, like math, I try to talk real slow.  So slow it doesn’t seem natural.  But the kids don’t realize it and they pay so much more attention.


    • Cindy Smith


      Be careful with eye contact, some cultures view it as aggressive.  Kids are socialized sometimes not to make eye contact as a sign of respect. This can be very confusing for teacher and student!


      I think the main point is not to tar everyone with the same brush. That is, jsut because one student was out of line and needed a reprimand, we mustn’t take it out on others who deserve us at our best. Very true, this takes discipline!

    • Lynn Snatchko


      I was introduced to the tactic of “mirroring behavior or misbehavior”   If a student is singing then you sing  quietly while standing by them. Whatever the negative behavior you mirror without interrupting class and without speaking.  You usually get a smile out of the student. They have been recognized quietly and class goes on.

  • AnneJolly

    Thoughts about expressions

    Just wanted to offer an idea that you are free to disagree with. A wise and wonderful teacher taught me not to judge student behavior as “good” or “bad.”  Rather, regard it as “interesting” and ask myself, “what is this behavior all about?”

    That approach was really counterintuitive and took a lot of practice (and I sometimes lapsed even when it became more or less second nature). But it kept me from reacting from the brain stem (the emotional seat of the brain) and helped to keep me analytical and cognitive when responding. At least that’s how it was explained to me.  At any rate, this did make it easier for me to respond to the behavior without registering disapproval or negative body language. So I tried to keep my facial expressions and, in fact, all body language in a range from neutral to positive. 

    Bottom line – avoid negative facial expressions althogether if you can.  It may seem to the kids that they are controlling you if they can visibly anger you.  Just saying . . . 

  • ArielSacks

    Totally agree

    Anne, I totally agree with you here. This is a great clarification.  I love the idea that all behavior is “interesting”!  I actually struggled a little bit with the sense that I was creating a good/bad judgement about student behaviors while writing this post, and your response is helpful. 

    I will say that Ms. Cunningham had a stern demeanor when she felt she needed it, but it didn’t have a negative feeling to it.  I don’t think the students got under her skin much… Although Ms. Cunningham could be stern, it was for the sake of that student, and not because she felt angry at him or her. 

    But student behaviors do get under our skin from time to time (as you said, at first it’s counterintuitive to stay analytical in these situations). Especially in beginning teaching, emotions can run high. The error in those moments is that the situation becomes about “me” and my personal emotional state, rather than about being a teacher to that student. 

  • SusanGraham

    The Look

     There was research research back in  the 1970 that  claimed that 55% of communication is body language. Never under estimate the power of The Look!

    Mrs. Burnett, my wonderful 6th grade teacher, was the master of The Look. She wore half glasses for reading which were often perched on her head. When necessary, she would drop them down on to her nose and, with her right index finger extended, slowly pull them a little lower. Her eyebrows went up, her chin drew down and in. Her head tilted slightly to the left as that right index finger was turned toward the class and that finger and her eyes would rise toward the point where the wall intersected the ceiling at the back of the room. The Look captured that moment of contemplative hesitation between discovery of something unexpected and the determination of whether it was a treasure or an anathema. The room would grow silent in anticipation and someone was probably offered up prayers that she would not make eye contact. 

    I learned The Look from Mrs. B, but it wasn’t quite as impressive because I didn’t  have those little half reading glasses.  Only when I got bifocals did it occur to me that the lowering of the glasses was just a little extra dramatic flair. But, I am proud to report that there were times when I could hear someone hiss “Watch out, she’s got The Look!” 

    Yesterday I did an observation of a fourth year orchestra teacher. Twenty-five twelve year-olds with string instruments are inherently noisy. But there was that moment when the noise ceased to be productive. I watched, fascinated as he clapped his hands. His eyebrows went up, his chin came down,his head tilted slightly to the left, and that index finger rose toward the ceiling and then pivoted toward the class as he gazed at the back wall of the room. There is was, The Look, and twenty-five students and their instruments went silent…. Then he smiled, and said “And again for the beginning.” And there was music. 

    Is it inutive or learned? I’m not sure. But I so know that sometimes The Look is worth thousand words. 

  • Jen Joy Yocum

    The Look

    After a long day with some very distracted students, this piece and the replies are very helpful to this beginning teacher.  There is a difference between stern or firm and angry.  Helpful hints!

  • Jamie


    I teach 8th graders, and at this age you can easily turn into the mean teacher without realizing it. To lighten things up, yet make my point, I have a “hand” pointer that I bought at a book fair. I will sometimes use this instead of my own finger to point. It gets the message across with a little fun added in. They’re still childern, after all!

  • Brielle Erazo

    All Smiles

    I have often struggled with perma-frown in the past.  I love the visual of the stern face to smile change, but this year I’m finding the smile is my most powerful expression.  Even when I’m correcting a student’s behavior, I smile.  In fact, my smile is even bigger.  The student ends up smiling back and returns to work, takes off the backpack, or whatever else I have asked him or her to do.  

    • Hannah

      Quick question

      I have always heard if you smile it encourages the behavior the student has at the moment. So my question is are you smiling in front of the whole class? Or are you taking the student to the side and smiling at them to get them to do what you need them to do? The reason I am asking is because all student's want smiles fjrom their teachers.  I would think smiling that it could give mixed signals. This year I am trying to be aware of my facial expressions and find a student's whys in their behavior. One time a student was being disrespectful and I was able to call her parent and ask what was going on with her. I am trying to figure out the why. She immediately starting crying and I asked her would she like to go to the counseling office? She replied with a big yes. If found out sometimes trying to figure out the why instead of getting emotional can help. I do believe every behavior has a true root and it is because of something going on  that you can't see at the surface. Thank you for your time

  • Anonymous

    I think this is the “make the

    I think this is the "make the weather" quote you're thinking of:

    “As a teacher, I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or hear. In a situation, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.” – Dr. Haim Ginott

    Wonderful article – thank you for that!