Why You Should Fake a Smile: How Your Emotions Affect Your Student’s Learning

June 4th, 2013 No Comments Features

fake smile

Twenty-five sets of wary eyes are gazing at you. The air in the room is thick with tension, and the owners of the twenty-five pair of eyes are shifting in their seats. Fifty legs become restless and the squeaks of tennis shoes and flats rubbing against the linoleum floor get louder and louder.

Is it time for a big test? Was the classroom scolded? Is it the last day of school, perhaps? No, it is none of the above. They are reacting to the anxiety and negative emotions that you brought into the classroom.

And the Oscar Goes To – Not You!

While you may feel your emotions about the fight you had with your spouse the night before, the flat tire on the way to work, or even the ill-timed death of your hairdryer that morning are well hidden from others, you are probably wrong. Children can often spot when something is “off” about another person, and it can be troubling, especially when it is their teacher or parent.

While it is important for children to understand everyone has emotions and can be sad, tired, angry, or happy, personal negative emotions need not be present in the classroom. Children crave stability and knowing what to expect each day, and when their world is changed a bit, it can lead to emotional distress and stress, halting the learning process.

Learning is Emotional?

Emotions are brought about by the limbic system. The limbic system is not an exact area, rather a sum of many parts. The system provides us the means to communicate, bond, and respond to stimuli. Fear and anger are the first emotions to cross the brain from birth. You may notice this in newborns and small children especially as their fear and crankiness is prevalent, mostly due to not being able to process all the stimuli.

Stress causes changes in the hippocampus region that result in lack of neuron cell growth, along with cell death. This can happen as early as the fetal stage of development depending on the stress level the pregnant mother is under, along with outside influences of substance abuse. The pathology of children growing up in extremely stressful environments is affected early in their lives.

The limbic system can shut down or go full steam ahead depending on outside factors. If a student feels happy, the limbic system, which involves intuition, math, logic, time, memory, and other learning processes will open up and be ready to receive. If the student is sad or stressed, the limbic system shuts down and the learning stops with it.

My Bad Mood Halts Learning?

When students are worried, their learning capabilities begin to decline. Stress is not just an adult concept. Children can be stressed by many things, and because they have no way of controlling or managing it, their stress can become overwhelming. Children are stressed daily and just trying to understand the world can be overpowering.

Stress in children can stem from their home life, friendships or lack thereof, illness, learning disabilities, pressure, a tense conversation between Mom and Dad they were not supposed to hear, and even making the choice of what to eat for lunch. Some children are more easily stressed than others due to their personalities or environmental factors.

Many adults forget that children do not have the same processing skills, and can often brush off a really stressful occasion as insignificant. While to an adult, two toddlers fighting over the Buzz Lightyear sippy cup is trite, to said toddlers it is the most important battle of wills for that moment. Two toddlers enter, one toddler leaves. There can be only One.

I’m Not a Robot!

Teachers are expected to walk a very fine line of emotions, mostly ranging from happy to happiest. Teachers are held to a high level and must live up to the expectations and be smiling, compassionate, fair, and even tempered at all times. While these positive attributes are great standards to strive for, it can sometimes be impossible to maintain at all times.

Why? Contrary to popular belief, teachers are human beings, too. All too often, teachers are expected to be almost perfect, and that is a strain on itself.

If I Can’t Hide My Emotions, How Will It Affect the Students?

Children are more attuned to changes in a person’s demeanor and may think, in their egocentric world, that they had something to do with your mood change. When an authority figure is acting in a manner unusual for them, is always negative, or is outwardly expressing anger, sadness, or depression, it causes the children’s mood to shift, too. It is hard to remain upbeat when someone is in pain.

When a teacher comes into a classroom snapping at the children, acting like they do not want to be there, and showing negativity, it cannot be a surprise when the children react the same way.  Your bad day just became the bad day of twenty-five more people, and unfortunately, it is not their job to cheer you up.

The Students Should Be Fine, Right?

If it is completely out of character for the teacher to be sad, the students will take extra notice, and be more worried about what is wrong, than their studies. The students will feel better knowing you are fine.

Think back when an important figure in your life was sad, angry, or frustrated. Were you apprehensive? Were you able to concentrate on any meaningful tasks? Did the worry manifest into physical symptoms like stomach pain or a headache? How do you feel even now as an adult when someone close to you is upset? It can put a mental strain on anyone.

It is your job, as a teacher, to provide a caring, comfortable, and positive learning environment, but by acting out negative feelings, you are creating the opposite for the students. Your day that started off terribly is only going to get worse.

How Can One Bad Day Really Make a Difference?

One bad day, depending on how the teacher acts, can damage the teacher-child relationship. Children look up to teachers, for the most part, as a substitute parental figure. If life at home is happy and the teacher is upset, this can be confusing for children, especially young toddlers and preschoolers. If they have angry parents and the teacher is angry, the child may view all adults as angry.

Children Will Remember My Emotional State?

Children, even toddlers, can have memories superior to adults in certain instances. In a study done at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, a group of children and adults were shown pictures of birds, cats, and bears. They were told when looking at the first picture of a cat that it had beta cells in its body, and were then shown a series of pictures asking the individual if the animal shown also had beta cells.

Interestingly, the subjects not told this was a recognition experiment, were later shown another set of animal cards and were asked to recall if they were new pictures, or previously viewed ones. Children scored 24% higher than the adults in remembering cards of animals they had been shown earlier in the day, due to the way they categorize.

What Does That Mean for a Teacher?

It means children have a better, or at least a simpler way, of looking at things than adults do. Adults use more complex deductive skills that while more advanced than a child’s, can actually hinder them because they are thinking too hard. Children, by virtue of their underdeveloped brains, think unpretentiously.

Small children lump everything into categories. If a tall man scared them, they will be wary of all tall men. If they were bitten by a dog, they may assume all dogs bite. Children categorize people and this is why we must remind them that not every woman with gray hair is Grandma, or a silver haired man in glasses is not Grandpa.

Teachers are put into a category from the first day of school. Mrs. Anderson is the “mean teacher”, while Ms. Lyons is the “nice teacher”. Chances are Mrs. Anderson is not actually mean (and if she is, may need to find a new vocation) but may remind them of someone in their lives that has been harsh with them. Likewise, Ms. Lyons was put into the “nice” box due to an emotion she invokes in the students.

It takes 17 muscles to smile and 42 muscles to frown. Author: unknown

Should I Fake It?

The theory behind the quote, and the jury is still out if the numbers are even true, is that is takes less effort to smile than it does to frown. When you are having a rotten day, the opposite usually holds true. It is hard to show happiness on the outside when you are miserable on the inside, but forcing yourself to do so, can actually make you feel happier.

Scientific research has shown that smiling reduces stress levels. The faces of the subjects brought in to a study were manipulated by chopsticks to either have a neutral smile, which is focused around the mouth or a genuine smile that spreads to the eyes. Some were asked to remain neutral, and others were told to smile on their own with the chopsticks in their mouths. They were then given tasks to do, while trying to keep the chopsticks in their mouths. Their vitals were monitored during the experiment, and the results proved in favor of smiling.

The results were interesting. Those with genuine smiles were the calmest, even when the smile was forced. Those instructed not to smile were the least calm after the tasks. The conclusion to the study is that smiling lowers stress levels.

Here’s a Smile, Now What?

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When someone smiles at you, do you frown back or do you find the corners of your mouth automatically rising? Do you have a friend that is always negative, causing you to feel low? Or perhaps you have a friend that you gravitate to because of their positive energy? Believe it or not, positive and negative emotions, while not a disease or illness, are actually contagious. Studies have found that emotions have the pathology of infectious diseases.

A Harvard University study tracked emotions in the same manner actual contagious diseases are followed. Happiness and sadness in subjects were tracked producing clusters of people affected by either. The amount of happiness that spread was not surprising, but the clusters of sadness garnered interesting results. The main conclusion is that sadness is more contagious than happiness.

One person’s happiness was only able to increase another’s by 11 percent, where one person’s sadness, increased another’s by 50 percent. Sadness is comparable to spreading germs to those around you.

How Can I Keep From Spreading Emotional Germs?

Shaking off negative emotions is difficult, especially for those that are more sensitive than others. Devastating news can be difficult to process, let alone smile through for your students, but you must try to persevere for the children. While some ideas may seem silly or trivial to remove yourself from the stress, it can work to help get you through the day.

  1. Do not forget to eat. It may be the last thing on your mind, your stomach might be protesting the idea, but you need to fuel your body. Lack of nutrients causes the body to shut down, which in turn will cause more stress, negative emotions, and anger.
  2. Take deep breaths, no seriously, try it. Breathing in deeply causes your body to relax by triggering anti-stress hormones in the body. Sit up straight; breathe in deeply for a few minutes before entering the classroom.
  3. Write down one or two positive things in your life on a piece of paper, and tape it to your desk. Refer to it during the day when you are feeling blue.
  4. Think positively. Pushing negative thoughts out of your head will relax the limbic system’s pathological need to shut down. Make it a game; anytime a negative thought comes into your head, throw a positive one right back at it.

It Can’t Be That Easy!

It may not be easy at all, but you have a job to do, and that is to protect your students own internal learning systems from your negative emotions. Involve the students by being honest; they can know that you have had a rough night or morning; you do not need to shield them from the facts.

Ask them to join you in making the classroom your happy place. Imagine how awesome it would be to have your whole class relaxed from deep breathing, and giving them something positive to do, by having their own “positive paper” on their desks to refer to during the day.

I Can Do This

Yes, you can. While you are a human being with emotions like everyone else, you are also a professional. Knowing how your mood can affect your classroom is the first step to taking control of the learning environment. If nothing else on your horrific morning of all mornings think of how important you actually are to your students.

You, their teacher, have the means to open the minds of your students just by how you present yourself. This is not something to take lightly. Your smile, your demeanor, and your positive energy are so unbelievably influential, it should be the first thing you remind yourself every morning.

If that is not a reminder to write on a Post-it note, what is?

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Carrie Wible is an educator, writer, musician, and mother living in Northeast Ohio. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music from Kent State University, a teaching certificate in grades 1-8 from Youngstown State University and a Masters in Teaching and Learning with Technology from Ashford University. Carrie has been teaching music lessons and has taught in the classroom for a combined total of 25 years.

Connect with her @carriewible or +CarrieWible.

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