A teacher talking and making eye contact with a student


I’m A Teacher And I Can See The Benefits Of Eye Contact In My Classroom

Oct 29, 2019

Just before I reach work every morning, I arrive at a quiet four-way intersection with a crossing guard known as Mémé Sam. I know this because of her parked car with its personalized license plate ("Mémé" is a term of endearment for grandma in French).

... [eye contact] gives you an opportunity to truly hear what someone is saying.

Regardless of the season, Mémé greets kids of all ages with a warm, beaming smile. I feel bad for her because day after day, a surprising number of kids don’t even look at her. They stare straight ahead, expressionless, as they continue walking, talking to their friends or looking at their phones without acknowledging her presence.

I can relate to Mémé. As a kindergarten teacher, in my classroom I greet kids as they walk through the door every morning. At the beginning of the year, some will say hello without looking at me. Others won't look up or respond at all.

From eye contact to eye health: Why You Should Add An Eye Exam To Your Back-To-School Prep List

If "the eyes have it" then kids these days just may be missing out

When I speak to kids one on one, it’s rare that they will establish eye contact. They look up, they look to the side, their eyes shift. I have to prompt them to look at me while we speak. Even with this reminder, they will keep eye contact for mere seconds and then quickly look away again. And they often act the same with their peers.

I believe looking someone in the eye while communicating and interacting is one way to establish empathy, compassion and understanding toward others (and it's not just me — according to some studies, humans can read emotions by just looking at how the eyes are opening).

However, eye contact, while something I teach during conflict, is not the only way to establish compassion and empathy and understanding — for example, you could try empathy prompting with questions like "How do you think they feel?" or "You look unhappy right now. Would you like to talk about what's wrong?"

Prompting kids to look at you regularly, is the first step.

But here's why I value eye contact when it's an available practice: I see it not only as an excellent way to listen, but it gives you an opportunity to truly hear what someone is saying. 

Of course, there are limits to how people can communicate with their eyes — that's just a reality. In fact, there has been research recently into something as granular as the duration of how long two people can comfortably hold eye contact. And, frankly, I understand that your experiences as parents, teachers and caregivers may not mesh with how I teach — that there are infinite scenarios where an eye focus-forward teaching style is just not possible. 

Because there are always exceptions. And teachers must consistently use their judgement and instincts to gauge what is beneficial for each individual student. Their comfort level and personal needs must always be respected.

As a teacher, I'd like my students to look at me when we talk

Although it takes time and patience, whenever I talk to a student, especially when disciplining, I ask that they look at me. When we finally establish that habit, I've noticed that amazing things start to happen.

When kids say “I’m sorry” while not looking someone in the eye, the result is remarkably different compared to when they are making eye contact. When they establish eye contact, they speak slower. Instead of being aloof, cold and defensive, I've noticed their tone of voice drastically changes. You can actually hear the empathy and remorse.

Even their facial expressions soften and their eyes widen. It’s clearly evident to me that a connection, deep understanding and a common ground have been reached.

Our relationship as student and teacher is enhanced because a foundation of trust is established. I've also noticed that unfavourable behaviours in the classroom also tend to diminish. Relationships between peers also improve because practicing eye contact tends to lead to less conflict in my experience. I think encouraging this kind of interaction is helpful in the long run — if the kids you're minding have the capacity to learn it. 

Engaging kids: 5 Ways To Keep Your Tweens Involved In Family Time

Eye contact extends beyond the classroom, to family and peers

In the classroom, we begin our day in a large group circle, which helps promote meaningful interactions instead of sitting in rows. Prompting kids to look at you regularly, is the first step. And when there is a conflict between peers or siblings, encourage them to stand face to face, look each other in the eye, explain what went wrong and shake hands. It's a great way to improve relationships and prevent future disagreements.

I think many different introductions could improve eye contact too, like family dinners, a limit on screen time for all family members and simply taking the time to have quality discussions. It’s always rewarding when eventually my young students walk into the classroom, look at me with a smile and unexpectedly say "good morning!"

And as for Mémé Sam — recently, there was a high school student on a bike crossing the street. The teenager pedalled past the crossing guard and looked at her with a big smile and said "hello!" with a nod. It was a reaction I hadn’t seen in a while. That simple sign of respect spoke volumes and the warmth was contagious.

It was a good start to the day.

Are you a writer? Are you a parent, teacher or caregiver? Do you feel differently about this subject? Feel free to reach out to us with a pitch at cbcparents@cbc.ca.

Article Author Kim Pallozzi
Kim Pallozzi

Kim Pallozzi has a master of education in curriculum studies and has been both a French elementary school teacher and a writer for 12 years. Kim studied in France, taught in South Korea and has traveled to 15 countries, yet her globetrotting days have just begun. From interviewing a list of influential Canadians to writing about the installation of laminate flooring, she has explored a wide range of topics for various publications, many of which are education-related. Kim is an Italian Francophile and a big city lover with a heart for the outdoors. Vive la différence!

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