Behaviour Support for Schools
Beacon School Support
Behaviour Support for Schools

Why do children smirk?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of a smirk is to: "smile in an irritatingly smug, conceited, or silly way."

We've all been there. A pupil has done something wrong and as we reprimand them for their misdemeanour, a slow, creeping smile crosses their lips and turns into a smirk.

For a lot of adults, this is like a red rag to a bull and sets off an instant angry reaction, sometimes even accompanied by 'What are you smirking at?' or 'Wipe that smile off your face.' Of course, this usually has the exact opposite effect of what we want. By drawing attention to what we perceive to be the child's inappropriate reaction, we actually magnify it. They do it more. The smirk gets bigger. We get angrier.

So, why do children smirk?

(By the way - if this applies to you - you may find this advice on 'How to convey calm' useful.)

Some psychologists say that smiling or laughing is a good defensive strategy that helps to release tension in the body. Smiling can also be a way of communicating to onlookers that there is nothing to see here; a way of deflecting attention from themselves.

If you've ever watched wildlife programmes about monkeys, you'll recognise that huge manic grin that comes over their faces when a predator or rival from another troop appears. This way of baring their teeth is actually a really primitive response to fear. It is a way of communicating that they feel under threat.

In evolutionary terms, humans are not so different! We smirk when we feel uncomfortable, threatened or defensive, or sometimes to mask our own aggression.

So, when children are being told off, they can perceive that as a threat and will therefore fall back on primitive responses such as smirking, avoiding eye contact or laughing in an attempt to deflect uncomfortable attention from adults.

The problem is, their smirk then triggers an angry response from us as we interpret this as defiance and feel our authority is being threatened.

This is bad because it does not de-escalate the situation, pupils can't listen and process information whilst feeling scared or uncomfortable, and there is no win:win.

So, next time a child smirks at you, stop and chose to handle the situation more expertly: remove the pressure by making the exchange less public and less confrontational. Recognise what the smirk is communicating and back off, allowing both of you to save face, preserve dignity and maintain your relationship.

Thanks to Sharon DeMaine from Colne Badminton Club for the suggestion for this video. If you have a good idea for our next video clip, please get in touch with me (Emma) by email, using the contact us button at the top of this page.

Staff meeting activity

This activity will take approximately 10 minutes in total and will enable your staff to experience and understand how they sometimes inadvertently create an uncomfortable feeling in their students, which leads to undesirable behaviours such as smirking.

You will need:

  • Access to interactive whiteboard to show 6 minute video clip
  • A stopwatch or timer (or a smartphone with a timer app)
  • Flip chart and marker pen


Staff can sit anywhere for this activity, but they will each need a partner to work with.

Before you watch the video...

Explain to staff that in a moment you are going to ask them to take part in a short experiment that will last for one minute, but they must abide by the following rules absolutely to the letter...

Read the rules:

  • There must be no talking
  • There must be absolute silence
  • You are not allowed to look away
  • You must not move away from your partner
  • There can be no physical contact

Set the stopwatch for one minute and give the instruction:

'I want you to look deeply into your partners eyes and follow all of the rules for one minute. Go!'

Let the staff take part in the activity for one minute, observe any behaviours such as looking away, laughing, smirking, talking, fidgeting. (There will likely be a lot of this!)

Ask staff to reflect on how this made them feel. List the emotions on the flipchart. Why did they break the rules? Why it was so difficult for them to complete the activity as instructed? Some people will be more embarrassed, nervous, and uncomfortable than other. Most people will not be able to complete the task according to the rules.

Ask staff to discuss occasions when we ask our pupils to be silent. Do some of them sometimes find this difficult? Do they respond in the same way the adults did?

Remember that we are all human!

Now watch the 4 minute clip: Why do children smirk.

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