Thursday, April 7, 2011

Facial Literacy Or...Securing Social Skills - Part 1

Facial Literacy - n. The ability to read faces.  

In my training as a school psychologist and lead facilitator for Mel Levine's Schools Attuned program one issue that kept coming up was the difficulty we professionals have with teaching or providing remedial intervention for kids with weak social skills.  In my opinion, there are many reasons for this difficulty, but one of them is that kids with weak social skills are befuddled with, and have a lot of trouble interpreting facial and non-verbal cues.

This is a vital skill when interacting with others because the face provides information that words often do not, or that may for various reasons conflict with verbal information.  Reading these emotions are so important for social (and sometimes for physical) survival.

Reading faces: When reading faces there are a number of factors that need to be integrated:
  • Eye Contact:  When speaking with people it is important to look at them in the face (but not to stare).  We equate having eye contact with a sense of interest and honesty, and when people cannot look us in the eye, we are more wary and apprehensive. 
  • Eyes also express emotion, excitement, exhaustion.  
  • Eye brows communicate emotion and excitement as well.  A raised brow appears questioning or possible excitement.  A furrowed brow expresses anger; a relaxed brow contentment.
  • Our mouths, even when not talking are expressive as well.  We frown,  smile, smirk, pout, grimace, gag, and gasp. Each nuanced move expresses an emotion or reaction.

Other non-verbal cues essential for reading others: Listening (not just hearing, but listening) and processing what is being said, reading faces, reading posture, understanding and being able to adhere to a 'social distance' when interacting, and acknowledging (if not agreeing) with others' responses, feelings and perceptions are all integral to social success. In time, I hope to cover all these factors, but let's start with Facial Literacy now, and build from there.

So what can you do to help your kids' "Facial Literacy"?
  • Make faces.  Play games.  Have one person/team make a face and have the others guess the emotion they are trying to relay.  IF you don't guess correctly talk (and listen) about what was 'misread'. 
  • Talk about what the consequences are in social interactions when you make different faces.
  • Picture books and graphic novels are great books to read faces with - together.  Look at the facial cues the artist is giving.  One of my favorite examples is in Laika by Nick Abadzis (First Second Books).  As this story takes place in Soviet Russia in the 1950's and is about the space race, the main characters cannot frequently say what they are actually feeling and it is through the facial expressions and body language found in the illustrations that the reader "reads" their true intent.
  • When out at restaurants, on walks, waiting on lines in the supermarket, look at faces and make up stories about what these people may be thinking or feeling.  It helps boost creativity as well as verbal and non verbal expression and social cognition.  Just do it tactfully and politely so as not to offend someone you do not want to offend.
  • Draw faces with different expressions on cards.  Make a separate card with the name of the corresponding emotion.  Play memory or matching games with the cards.


  1. Great post. Thanks for the info. Always helpful.

  2. Social interaction with their peers is difficult for many very intelligent children. A Special Educational Needs teacher can be invaluable in tactfully teaching them how to respond appropriately. I had two nine-year-old boys in my class who were helped enormously through one-to-one and small group sessions with our SEN teacher.

  3. Wow...who knew? Thank you for that!

  4. Excellent information. Thanks for sharing.

  5. How very interesting...thankyou for sharing a bit of your wisdom :)

  6. Meryl - thanks - and so true. One of my kids didn't 'get' social cues but we've been working for years with him. He's much better now at picking up what others might mean (and not just literally, either.) ☼

  7. GREAT post! :-)

  8. Oh, this is so important and you are doing such a great service talking about this! I have a son with asperger's and this was a bit of an issue when he was younger. It's still hard for him sometimes. Thank you!

  9. Of course of if those faces are Botoxified, all bets are off. :)

  10. Where were you when I had children in school? Great information.

    Thanks for the visit to my Faces in Stone.

  11. I agree with Rita!!!

    I took in nine different foster children many years ago, and I wish resources like this had been available then. I worked with high risk children, so I received a great deal of training about social cues, and you have listed some of them. I'm fascinated by the new ones I had not thought of before and am tempted to go back into fostering just to try them out!

  12. What an interesting post! I have six kids and never really considered if they were actually able to read facial cues or not. Communication is a very important skill.
    Thanks for visiting my blog DiSemblance last week and leaving a great comment. I recently had a problem and lost a lot of information. I have spent the week rebuilding. I was wondering if you would be kind enough to revisit that post and re comment. I would really appreciate it. I really appreciated the comment you left last Theme Thursday. Here's the link just in case you are willing to do me a favor.

  13. I love what you do with the Theme on Thursdays. :)

    This is great information; my older son had difficulty with social skills in the younger grades and the sort of thing you describe here was part of his issues. I am very lucky in that his school recognized his needs and provided a lot of support to him (and me!) to help him work through them.

  14. Thanks for stopping by. Glad I made you smile.

  15. Great post. A good percentage of children I see are on the autistic spectrum so this is an important skill to teach them.

  16. This sounds like great fun! I love to tell stories about who and where people are going in the airport :) thanks for saying hi on my blog!

  17. Great information. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  18. These are brilliant tips! Thanks for sharing! :)

  19. I never thought of this, but can see your points. Sounds like good tips for someone needing this.

    Thanks for sharing.

  20. Very interesting post!
    Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment;o)

    Have a nice day****

  21. My daughter was so highly functioning with her Asperger's that I was not aware of the social cues, including interpretation of others giving off "vibes," that she was not diagnosed until she was 20. Before that, we were preoccupied with her trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling).

    Social cues are vital to a child's development. Thank you for a post that may save someone else's child a world of hurt and misunderstandings. She's doing fine now and has even enrolled in courses such as public speaking and one-on-one communication to strengthen these skills.


  22. enjoyable and useful post. thanks for sharing.