David Craft: A Smile Carries Immeasurable Power

Principal David Craft writes about what a smile can do to help with learning.


The statewide tests are here. Student achievement is the concern of the federal and state governments. Schools are expected to raise test scores and teachers have been focused on raising student achievement since the day after Labor Day. When federal legislators passed and the President signed into law No Child Left Behind, they created environments in which new economic markets could flourish. National publishing companies and entrepreneurs have since developed and advertised numerous strategies for increasing student achievement.

So, in an effort to put my hat into the ring I’ve decided to share my idea for increasing student achievement. Here it is. It is sound. It is simple. And there is a ton of research to support it.

In I emphasized the power of positivity in the life of an ADHD child as well as the lives of all children. Dr. James Comer asserts that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Anyone who has gone through the American education system knows this to be true. We all have memories of our favorite teacher, the one from whom we learned the most. Our favorite teachers were positive, upbeat, they cared and therefore we trusted them. When we trust someone something magical happens in the brain.

Paul Zak graduated with degrees in mathematics and economics from San Diego State University. He is a professor at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. Dr. Zak has studied the trust phenomenon in the brain. He was the first to identify what is now being referred to as the trust hormone. This hormone has been named oxytocin. Oxytocin plays an important role in trusting relationships.

Here is how it works. A double-blind experiment tested whether oxytocin enhanced learning performance where either smiling or angry faces were present. The results showed that learning performance was improved when smiles were present. When smiles were not present, oxytocin was greatly diminished and learning performance was not improved. To sum it up, when someone smiles, the brain of the recipient of the smile produces oxytocin and the recipient is compelled to trust. They can’t help it!

There is another significant occurrence in the brain. This increase in oxytocin opens up the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for learning. “This vital region of the brain regulates thought in terms of both short-term and long-term decision making. It allows humans to plan ahead and create strategies, and also to adjust actions or reactions in changing situations. Additionally, the prefrontal cortex helps to focus thoughts, which enables people to pay attention, learn, and concentrate on goals… The prefrontal cortex also houses active, working memory.” At the end of the day, when the prefrontal cortex is wide open, a child has the greatest potential for student achievement.

So. A smile equals more oxytocin. It can’t be helped. It’s the way our brains are made. More oxytocin equals more trust and more trust equals higher learning. MAGIC!

On the other hand, the research brought something else out. A frown has the opposite affect. A frown diminishes the production of oxytocin. A reduction of oxytocin reduces trust. In fact, a frown creates a response in the brain that preoccupies the part of the brain responsible for learning with trying to determine whether or not there is a threat. This is as opposed to being wide open for learning in a trusting environment. Some examples of this, in a classroom, might be when the teacher frowns with disappointment when a child is distractible or when a teacher appears to be disappointed because a child needs to have directions repeated. In an environment where a child is
 regularly defined in this manner--either through the body language of a frown or through verbal language--trust is not present and therefore neither is oxytocin at higher levels.

Now apply this notion to a child with ADHD. As I have stated in previous , an child is frequently described as having a disorder. Consequently, adults often bring the language and demeanor of a disorder directly into the child’s life from the standpoint of an adult’s oral/body language. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the child and neurologically speaking, the brain responds accordingly.

I don’t have any evidence to support this, but I suspect that all of our favorite teachers smiled. In the least, I’m sure they were complimentary and probably defined us by what they were for in us instead of what they were against. The power of a smile and the positivity of a great teacher are paramount in the life of a child with ADHD. Neuroscience supports this. We all knew it even before the recent ground breaking research on oxytocin. The sooner more parents and educators know it, the sooner we can smile--more.

All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up—Picasso.

Paul J. Zak, Robert Kurzban and William T. Matzner, "The Neurobiology of Trust,” Annals of the New YorkAcademy of Sciences 1032:224–227, 2004.
Anissimov, Michael, and Niki Foster. "What Is the Prefrontal Cortex?" WiseGeek. Conjecture, 08 Mar. 2012. Web.06 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-prefrontal-cortex.htm>.


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