How to understand emotions of a student through their facial expressions

“Words express thoughts…body expresses emotions” – has been my oft-repeated first line on this topic. Yes, words can at best express thoughts on emotions but not emotions per se. The emotions get expressed only through nonverbal behavior. As a famous finding – though often not seen in the proper context – of researcher Albert Mehrabian suggests – up to 93% part of a communicated message is conveyed through nonverbal behavior.

Moreover, as most of the nonverbal behavior is involuntary, it represents a person’s emotional state more authentically. Observing it is even more important for educators because it has potential to improve teacher‐student connect as well as enhance student‐engagement in the process of education. But what does nonverbal behavior include? Well, it mainly includes gestures, postures, vocal cues and facial expressions. However, interestingly, while other aspects can tell you the emotional state a person is in, only the face can tell you the exact emotion the person is feeling.

So, how many universal ‘discrete emotions’ can the face show? Well! Putting together the works of Charles Darwin, Duchenne, Ernst Huber, Robert Plutchik and Silvan Tomkins, two famous researchers Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen found that there are seven emotions that human face can convey. These are our basic emotions – happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust and contempt. There are specific facial expressions pertaining to each of them, which are legacy of evolution, are unadulterated, and have been found to be universal.

You might think that - but these facial expressions can always be controlled or mocked. Well! While that’s true, in the initial stage of an emotional stimulation, there is a short leakage or seepage of real expressions. They are called micro-expressions, which can be spotted with observation and practice. If we talk about universal expressions of seven basic emotions, each of them has a specific nuanced configuration in three parts of the face – upper, middle and lower. Yes, to spot these emotions, it is important to be conversant with their characteristic features. So now, let’s see some photographs.

Remember! The photos given here are NOT those of full-fledged expressions of these emotions, because, well, students won’t feel them so intensely or show them so explicitly. Yes, an emotion’s spread conveys its intensity, i.e. a more intense emotion will manifest in multiple parts of face and less intense emotion will show in fewer parts. So what you see here are the variants of these emotional expressions that you will most probably see in a classroom.

Last but not the least. What to do when you have observed the expression to understand the emotion? Well, then utilize this knowledge, not for being conclusive, but for being curious and making things conducive. Yes – attend, ask, understand and empathize; and then – repeat, elaborate, resolve or personalize.

Image courtesy: Dr. Sandeep Atre, ‘Emotional & Social Intelligence’ Expert; and Founder of Socialigence (www.socialigence.net) – a venture specializing in the development of ‘Emotional & Social Intelligence’ through its online course rooted in Neuroscience and Psychology.

Author of two books – “Understanding Emotions Logically” and “Observing Nonverbal Behavior”
Dr. Sandeep Atre

Dr. Sandeep Atre

Emotional & Social Intelligence Expert & Founder of Socialigence