Wednesday’s Wisdom #5: Eye Contact

Having recently acquired a beautiful Huntaway puppy, I’ve thrown myself into the perplexing world of dog training. Unlike education, I can report that canine trainers are not, on the whole, experiencing a renaissance period of evidence-based pedagogy, and a quick search on YouTube will unearth multiple dog ‘behaviour experts’ who inevitably contradict each other’s attempts to explain the science behind how dogs act.

Nonetheless, I’ve found a few things that work for me and Indy (my dog Indiana. Yes, Jones). The most effective has, much to my surprise, been the ‘look at me’ command, as recommended by Zak George. Whether Indy has become distracted by horse dung, found solace in chewing a table leg, or if I want him to make eye contact to convey a gesture, ‘look at me’ helps him focus and regroup. We’ve built it up to the point where he will hold my gaze for a sustained period of time, eagerly awaiting my next move.

The impact of this command on my training regime has made me reconsider the power of eye contact among people. As a sign of the times, we are adorned in masks that nullify the ability to use our mouth to express emotion, in turn putting enormous strain on our (under practised) eyebrow game. And now interactions revolve around catching someone’s eye, and assessing their feelings and reactions through the lone visual stimuli of the eyes.

Our natural inclination as adults can be to make judgments on those who do not make sustained eye contact; perhaps we perceive those who avoid it as being less confident, or disinterested. Children, in particular, can find eye contact difficult. Studies have shown that eye contact can trigger feelings of shame or negative self-evaluation, and some children who find it difficult to read emotions in others can interpret negative emotions in those who are looking at them.

However, as part of fostering healthy relationships, eye contact can be a brilliant tool in building trust, warmth and honesty. Your eyes do not lie. I was once speaking to a student when I was their Head of Year, after they had made a few choice mistakes, and when I had calmly explained why it was wrong, and what consequences would need to be applied, he made an observation. ‘Sir, I can always tell when you are disappointed from your eyes’. In my head, I was projecting an expression of tranquillity – being neutral yet supportive. I was quite shocked that my eyes had betrayed my true feelings, and yet equally I could see that he had taken comfort in being able to read that expression, and could tell I was going out of my way not to project that feeling into my words. In other words, my eyes conveyed a sense of authenticity that showed, despite my disappointment in his actions, that I have feelings and that I was invested in him.

It’s important when making eye contact with someone, especially a child, that we do so as part of a process of building relationship and confidence. Studies have shown that eye contact can build rapport between people, and help us behave more altruistically, given that the knowledge that we are being watched makes us more conscious of our behaviour. I think the combination of both factors helps build authentic relationships – prolonged eye contact can be a meeting of minds and feelings and help to evoke a sense of mutual understanding.

Indeed, Psychologist Paul Ekman argues that you can tell the authenticity of a smile by looking at the eyes; while we wear masks, perhaps our eyes can do all of the heavy lifting. When forming real smiles, the eyes narrow and create lines, or crow’s feet, at the outer corners, which we can pick up on as a cue for what’s lurking beneath the surgical veil. Likewise, when we are interested in something or someone our pupils will dilate.

Eye contact also triggers the limbic mirror system, a set of brain areas that are active both when we move our eyes (or any body part) and when we see someone else doing the same. The limbic system helps us recognise and understand emotion, too, and can be critical in establishing empathy. Making eye contact with someone, therefore, is a natural way to build understanding and empathy, as the eyes begin to mirror each other, and we start to become conscious of ourselves and the other person as they hold our gaze.

Walking around school, I pass thousands of students and adults each day, all wearing masks. Some may be smiling underneath, others won’t be. More than ever, I’m consciously using my gaze to catch their attention, trying to will feeling and welcome into my eyes, or from a distance settling for a nod of the head or another gesture. But, amidst the frustration at the deprivation of the rest of our faces, it strikes me that there are opportunities, here:

Let’s capitalise on eye contact: being forced to use eye contact as a primary method of communication (I’m aware our voice is an option, too!) is an opportunity. Children, especially during two remote-learning lockdowns, have spent less time having to make prolonged eye contact with peers and adults. During this period of mask wearing, we can normalise eye contact as a tool to gain attention, sustain concentration, convey emotion, and to build trust.

Teach and model eye contact: we should also take the opportunity to verbalise that eye contact is positive and worth practising. Consider talking to the children about how we are currently relying on eye contact as a form of communication; explain that we will be seeking out their focus through their eye contact, and acknowledge that it will take some time getting used to. We can teach children the aforementioned benefits of making eye contact in 1:1 situations or in groups, and show them how it can be a positive tool to build relationships. They will adapt and feel more confident if we talk about it, model it, and give feedback on it.

Better understanding different needs: only being able to get a read of a student from their eyes could be a good opportunity for us to better understand which students are more or less comfortable with making eye contact. There are many reasons why some people might not be able to hold our gaze, and I believe that we can use the mask wearing to better understand our students and colleagues. It’s now much more obvious when a crowd of students walks past, or when they are facing you in a queue or classroom, which of them do not wish to catch your eye. My aim isn’t to enforce eye contact upon anyone, but to use this as a time to increase our understanding.

Brushing up on our own non-verbals: during a lesson we utilise a range of techniques to keep children focused, working hard, or quiet. Often, words are not the correct choice if we want to maintain the silence, and so we might call upon the use of a hand, silently mouth something, or just use our mouth to make an expression of affirmation or encouragement. Without the latter, we have an opportunity to consider how we use our eyes as a form of communication. For example, without being able to see our mouth, or smile, it is more important to cover all the students in the room with eye contact more regularly. We can convey sincerity, interest, and support through our eyes alone, and it’s worth improving this if you are teaching with a mask on, or communicating at any point of the day with your face covered.

I wonder how others have found the heightened demand on our eyes over the last few months; are you more conscious of it? Are you noticing those who are not as comfortable with making eye contact? How can we support and not alienate them? Can we turn this into a positive for the long term and re-establish this skill? Have you got Jedi-esque eye and eyebrow skills you could share?

Whatever we’ve learnt, it’s another example of COVID providing something to reflect upon and discuss.

Thanks for reading.

Sam

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