Learning to Read Faces: A Sorting Task

Everyday, typically developing students and adults absorb and interpret thousands of pieces of data. Students in special education classes absorb these data too, but oftentimes have a great deal of difficulty interpreting their meaning. This, in turn, makes daily communication a chore for most students. Furthermore, not knowing how to interpret the data received often leads to awkward and/or embarassing social moments.

Students in my resource room, perhaps especially noticeable in students with and ASD, have deficits in communication, play, social skills and relating to others (Rao & Gagie, 2006 membership to Council for Exceptional Children may be required to access full text). A significant portion of my time is spent in developing ways to help these children communicate their needs, their feelings, their wants, their frustrations, and, in some cases, just to say something as fundamental as the ABCs or 123s. 

In response to the need to generalize an understanding of facial expressions among my students, I developed this sorting task. Originally, this task had four categories the student would sort, but in this latest iteration I chose to excise the 'shy' category given that it was too obscure. Then we went with only three categories: sad, happy, and angry as shown below. 

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These three categories are at the top of the board and a line separates them. Down the columns, as you can see, are pieces of Velcro. The students attach pictures of faces to these. In the next picture, you see the faces. These faces have been cut from old magazines, shaped, and laminated in order to preserve them for many uses (we also have a bunch of extras we keep separate).

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In the original design of this task, the faces were all cut to the same shape. What I found is that this was just a bit confusing at times and offered little in the way of self-correcting strategies. In this revised version of the task, we cut the faces into one of three shapes: triangle, circle, or square. These three shapes then correspond to one of the three emotional categories: sad, happy, angry. 

Displaying 2013-12-30 11.35.36.jpg  Displaying 2013-12-30 11.35.42.jpg  Displaying 2013-12-30 11.35.47.jpg

This is a very simple sorting task and costs virtually nothing to create. Any piece of cardboard will do; any face from a magazine or google search will do; and you can decide which categories you wish to use. Sometimes it is difficult to find more categories and the pictures can oftentimes be rather difficult for the students to interpret–due to their subtle nature. I work with elementary students so these three categories are easiest to find and the easiest with which to work. 

When the student is finished working with the task, simply fold it up and put it away! I use this task to help students learn the subtleties of facial expression and the varieties of ways people show happiness or anger or sadness. But I also hope that the students will learn to generalize these categories–so I'm kind of working backwards in a sense. 

It also seems important that the pictures we use are in a rotation too. So I have another bag of faces and we are always in the process of looking through magazines for more. Again, ask your librarian for magazines that are about to become garbage. It keeps them out of the landfill and they are useful for creating wonderful games. 

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This is a very simple task to create, you get to recycle, and it is flexible enough that the categories can be altered or adjusted for age appropriateness.  Let me know what you think or what sort of alterations you make to improve this idea. Thanks. 

Edit: I came across an article at Psychology Today written by Lynne Soraya called Empathy, Mindblindedness, and Theogy of Mind that I found very helpful and pertinent to this blog post. From her conclusion:

In her article "Who cares? Or: The Truth about Empathy in Individuals of the Autism Spectrum," researcher Isabel Dziobek outlines her study on the subject of empathy.  Through the course of the study, more than 50 subjects on the spectrum were evaluated against neurotypical control subjects.  The results? To quote Ms. Dziobek – "More generally speaking, our data shows that people with Asperger syndrome have a reduced ability to read other peoples' social cues (such as facial expressions orbody language) but once aware of another's circumstances or feelings, they will have the same degree of compassion as anyone else."

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