What goes on behind the blank stares of your students?

Regardless of our subject area, we’ve all had moments where some students appear to hang on every word, gobbling up our messages, images, graphs, and visuals with robust engagement. Within those very same classes, however, there will be a degree of confusion, perplexed looks, or at worst, the blank stare! What is really behind the blank stares? Is daydreaming good or bad for students?

It gets worse when we have just taught a lesson during which we implemented all our best strategies and then, in that moment of handing over responsibility, you see it: the blank stare. Your face goes blank as you confront the indecision and quickly contemplate possibilities. You may even stop, hesitate, and falter. Interestingly, in this moment, it is not only the students who are puzzled. The teacher wonders, “What wasn’t clear about my instructions, and how do I reteach when I have already given it my best shot?”

For young children, staring into space can be completely normal. It is a chance for an overstimulated infant or toddler to remove herself from the madness for a moment. School aged children too, often need a moment. Kids tend to look away when a task is difficult in an attempt to organise and focus on their thoughts. Those whose gazes stay with the teacher sometimes rely too heavily on visual cues. This may make it harder for them to process the information, or to perform the task at hand. That is not to say there aren’t daydreamers amongst us.

There’s a neuro-biological story behind this. We have two primary attention networks in our brain: task positive and task negative, and they function like a seesaw in that only one is active at a time. When we are focused on something, or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attention network is ON. But when you’re staring out the window, out into space, relaxing, or driving but not listening to the radio and you let your mind wonder, the task-negative brain becomes active. This is where our creative insight comes from. This is why we often get our best ideas in the shower…it’s the only remaining place in the world where we let ourselves do nothing!

However, sometimes it is an indicator of autism. Staring into space, or looking like you are in your own world, is one of the many signs of autism. Usually, autism is diagnosed after the age of two, but if you have concerns about a younger child avoiding eye contact, you may need to follow up with the parents. Most infants and toddlers will look intently into the face of others to learn social cues and will react to a person based on their expression. There are many symptoms of autism - you don’t want to overreact if your pupil demonstrates just one of them. Then again, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to have an early diagnosis and thereby, early intervention.

If the empty stares are from adolescents, they may be having a given condition. Adolescents who stare into the distance with a little smirk on their faces when you are trying to talk to them, have a very serious condition known as teenagism. I have no advice for that one except patience and well stocked juice cooler. You can also try being a friend and having a chat with the student after class to establish the reason, if any.

Daydreaming is a counter-culture notion that many people feel guilty and anxious about. We feel important and productive when we are busy, and insignificant and lazy when day dreaming. But to be successful, we don’t just need to learn to tolerate stillness; we actually need to cultivate it. Allow for some day dreaming; you never know.

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