Jeff Wickard, MS
Transition Classroom Therapist/Team Leader
“Nobel, that’s why I knocked!”
This joke might not be all that funny to you as an adult but, to a student, it usually is hilarious. Children love knock-knock jokes, puns, funny faces, unusual sounds, books read in silly or different ways, and all sorts of other things that make them laugh. Through my work with kids in kindergarten through 5th grade, I have found that students respond and have better engagement with me when comedy and a good sense of humor is utilized. Humor aids in the development of a stronger, more trusting relationship to form between students and adults. And while there is a necessary balance of using comedy in the classroom and maintaining the environmental structure, it is a line that can be easily managed. In fact, this affords students the opportunity to practice self-control and discipline in their behaviors. Thus, in this article I will highlight how I have used comedy to help students cope with difficult emotions and anxiety, adjust to changing moods, and become comfortable enough to talk about uncomfortable topics. My hope is that, by reading this, you will consider how you can tap into your own sense of humor in your work, as well.
Research shows that occasional and appropriate use of humor helps students increase their attention and focus towards school staff and academics (Bobek, 2002; Friedman, Halperm, & Salb, 1999; McLaughlin, 2001). Likewise, studies have demonstrated that students retain more information from staff who use appropriate humor during discussions or lectures, compared to staff who do not (Berk, 2000). Now, let me emphasize the importance of the word “appropriate” here. In the school-setting, it is imperative that humor be developmentally appropriate for the students’ ages and avoid any potential harm or offense to them. This style, called constructive humor, or humor that is non-hostile, helps advance students’ learning (Tauber & Mester, 1994). Therefore, it is important for staff members to consider several points prior to being comedic with students, including the subject, the tone, the intent of the humor, and the overall audience (Nilsen, 1994).
Over the past 10 years, I have worked with students from an extensively diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. However, one of the main consistencies across the years has been the love of humor, comedy, and laughter that I have observed. It has been clear that the more the students get to laugh and have fun, the more likely they are to listen, show respect, learn self-control, and interact appropriately with one another. Further, from learning when they can be silly, students also learn when they need to be more focused and serious.
A major factor in facilitating this positive impact of humor is when the students learn how to laugh at themselves in a respectable and appropriate manner. At times in the classroom, I make fun of myself, laugh at myself, and don’t take myself too seriously. This is done purposefully to show the students that it is okay to be imperfect, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. Most importantly, it serves as a careful reminder to the students that laughing is a more productive response than becoming angry and losing control. Thus, through observation and imitation, they are able to learn to laugh at themselves too, and develop more appropriate coping skills, self-confidence, and self-control.
Another component to consider is utilizing humor to help improve students’ engagement in the classroom. More specifically, allowing comedy and laughter to capture students’ attention and revitalize their interest in the topic or activity being addressed. For example, I often read books to the students using different voices, funny faces, and sound effects, as well as ad-libbing certain comments to help them to really tune into the story. Similarly, I have done numerous social skills groups covering a wide range of topics and activities. In each of these, I inject humor into the structure to help the students focus on their specific goals, peer interactions, and coping skills. This has yielded significant success as the students find the groups to be far more engaging than if I were to strictly adhere to serious conversation alone.
The last, but certainly not least, reason humor can be helpful and impactful with students is that it can help reduce anxiety (Berk 2000; McMorris et al, 1997). Unfortunately, over the years a significant number of students with whom I’ve worked have presented with anxiety concerns triggered by taking tests or quizzes, working together in groups, or doing activities about which they feel uncomfortable. This anxiety manifests in a variety of forms, from shutting down and withdrawing to becoming angry and destructive. However, despite the substantial differences in students’ presentation of anxiety, humor has been an immensely useful tool in addressing it. When kids are feeling stressed, unable to focus, or angry or sad due to something causing them anxiety, I have been able to get students to open up and share information by using humor to help them laugh, smile, and feel more comfortable with the situation. This may look like making a silly joke to help take their mind off the stressor or helping them to see the situation in a more playful light, as appropriate. In this way, the students are able to be reassured that how they are feeling is okay, and that they are able to work through it.
As you can see, the benefits of comedy and humor in the classroom are plentiful. In my work with students, I have become more comfortable implementing comedy and different forms of humor into the routines, rituals, and tasks that we complete. Further, I have seen students develop effective skills while laughing and having fun. So, for you and your students, I challenge you to give it a try, whether that’s finding a moment to laugh at yourself, to put on a silly voice, or even tell a corny knock-knock joke. You might be surprised to see what happens!
Berk, R.A. (2000). Does humor in course tests reduce anxiety and improve performance? College Teaching, 48, 151-58.
Bobek, B.L. (2002). Teacher resiliency: A key to career longevity. Clearing House, 75, 202-205.
Friedman, H.H., Halpern, N., & Salb, D. (1999). Teaching statistics using humorous anecdotes. Mathematics Teacher, 92, 305-308.
McLaughlin, K. (2001). The lighter side of learning. Training, 38, 48-52.
McMorris, R.F., Boothroyd, R.A., & Pietrangelo, D .J. (1997). Humor in educational testing: A review and discussion. Applied Measurement in Education, 10, 269-297.
Nilsen, A.P. (1994). In defense of humor. College English, 56, 928-933.
Tauber, R.T. & Mester, C.S. (1994). Acting lessons for teachers. Westport, CN: Praeger.