School Connectedness
Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 9:16AM
Terence Houlihan in facial expressions

-by Terence J. Houlihan, MS Ed, CRS

In my role as a school counselor, one of the most common expressions I heard from adolescents and children was, “The teacher hates me.”  Initially, my instinct was to de-escalate the emotional response and attempt to have the student logically analyze how they came to that belief.

Sometimes, they would see that they misinterpreted something from the teacher, other times, they were probably just projecting their own dislike for the teacher, and others, they just couldn’t get past a “look” they saw on the teacher’s face.

In 2004, the CDC reported that “students who feel connected to their school are … more likely to have better academic achievement…”  One of the influencing factors on whether or not a student feels connected to their school lies in their relationships with the adults in the school building.  Students typically report that the way they are greeted when the first enter a classroom is indicative of a positive relationship with a teacher.  In fact, children and adolescents will claim that they perform better in a class if they think a teacher likes them.

If you’re raising an eyebrow to this, think about your own experiences in working for a supervisor: chances are the more you felt they liked you, the better you performed.

What is crucial for educators to understand is that children and adolescents do not use the same part of their brain (as adults do) to read facial expressions.  Without going into a long discussion on the nature of adolescent brain development, scientists were able to identify that while reading facial expressions, adults use the more mature, logical part of the brain referred to as the pre-frontal cortex, but adolescents and children use their unrefined, emotionally responsive limbic system.  Research shows that time after time, children and teenagers interpret a facial expression of anger on the faces of the adults who were intending to show disappointment or shock.  This could help to explain why situations in the classroom can quickly escalate without the teacher saying a word.

So, when focusing on classroom management or building school connectedness, the adults in a school need to be conscious of what they’re saying with their bodies and faces, or better yet, they could probably put words into their expressions.  Rather than looking “disappointed,” it is better to verbally tell the student just that. 

Then again, why not smile at them when they enter the building or the classroom?

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