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Using Humor in the Classroom

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Young girl laughing in front of computer monitor

“But why do I have to go? School is not fun!” That quote is from a first-grade child, asking his mom why he has to go every single day to this place that he was told was going to be a lot of fun, but has not lived up to the hype. If he could articulate further, he might say, "I am only six. I like to have fun, but school is not fun and from what I can tell, it's going to get worse every year, not better."

This is not an April Fool's Day anecdote; it's all too real. That's why we are always on the lookout for ways fun ways to engage and inspire students . On the other hand, we also know that teachers are not selected or trained to be comedians or entertainers. However, we know that a positive climate for learning, and enjoyment, is correlated with retention of information and putting knowledge to work in everyday situations (including tests).

Confused? Me, too. So I sought out an expert: Ed Dunkelblau, former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, Director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning and consultant to schools for both character and social, emotional learning (SEL) approaches, as well as to families coping with the stress of military service. I spoke with him about how to bring humor into classrooms.

I asked Ed how humor can be fit in when teachers have so much to cover in their classes. He said, "In the present environment of high stakes testing, budgetary challenges, increased demands on educators and competition for students attention, everyone in the school benefits when humor is part of the pedagogy. Humor builds a learning relationship through the joyful confluence of head and heart." He points to a growing literature on how humor reduces stress and tension in the classroom, improves retention of information, and promotes creative understanding.

"But most of all, it brings a sense of pleasure and appreciation and creates a common, positive emotional experience that the students share with each other and the teacher."

Humor Strategies to Use

Even if you are what Ed calls "humor challenged," there are things you can do to lighten the load and dissipate the clouds in your classroom. Just remember, above all, that sarcasm has no place in the school. Only "no hurt" humor is acceptable.

  • Laugh at yourself -- when you do something silly or wrong, mention it and laugh at it.
  • Add humorous items to tests, homework or class assignments -- even at the University, one of my favorite options when I give multiple choice exams requiring students to identify pairs of psychologists is Calamari and Endive. It always gets smiles, and helps to break exam tension.
  • Keep a quotable quotes bulletin board or corner in your room -- look for humor quotes and post them and encourage your students to do the same.
  • Keep a cartoon file, and have an area where you can display one or two a day on a rotating basis, with students making the choice.
  • Have Joke Friday -- ask students to bring in jokes to share, either to start the day on Friday, to make a transition between lunch and the following class, or at the end of the day (be sure to screen the jokes in advance, of course).
  • Ask students to try to build humor into occasional writing assignments -- that will start a conversation about what it funny, how they know something is funny, why different people find some things funny but some things are funny to almost everyone.
  • Have a funny hat day, or mismatched socks day, or some other funny dress-up time.
  • Build creative and humorous thinking by showing cartoons and picture without captions and asking students to create them -- individually, in pair-shares, or small groups.
  • Ask students to bring in books they think are funny. Ask them to talk about why, and to use examples from the book.

Truth be told, however, there is another side to the story. Ed tells of a group of individuals who are not so enamored of bringing humor into classrooms and schools: private practice therapists. "The more laughs our society loses, the more humorless our society becomes, and the more clients our society creates. Laughter is a great antidote to stress. As they say at the AATH, "Those who laugh, last. Those who don't, pay a price." But really, it's the kids who pay the price, and they should not have to.

Let's add some more enjoyment to school. We don't need guffaws -- a smile and a little levity can go a long way. It's time for us educators to take humor more seriously. I am sure Ed will be happy to help you if you ask.

How do you bring humor in to your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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dons's picture
Fifth grade teacher

I teach 5th grade. I play jokes, use games, do silly things. It paves the way for learning. I have to see my students smile. Besides, I want to have fun in school too! :)

Sara Truebridge's picture
Sara Truebridge
Consultant, researcher, and author specializing in the area of resilience, combining my experience and expertise in the areas of research, policy, and practice to promote success and equity for all.

As moderator of the Twitterchat, #resiliencechat, on 3/30/15 we talked about humor and resilience in honor of April Fool's Day. People shared insightful information. Many of the stories about humor in the classroom were absolutely HYSTERICAL!! You can read it all here archived on Storify: ENJOY!

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

As a person who deals with SEL daily, I have discovered that one of the best tricks of all is teaching kids to find the funny side to dramatic situations. In my library, I have a studio recorded song (featuring the voice of a student and Justin Timberlake's drummer - whose name I won't print because it might leave you in too many stitches, I kid you not,) ELA teaching unit, music videos, and teaching videos taught by kids that all wrap around our song Scary Guy. Too often we let negative people spoil our day with their ridiculous comments. But if we get their first with a quirky positive point of view? They are toast. This is lovely. Absolutely agree! Thank you for the post. Oh, and we have an April Fool's song all about taking love lightly. Throwing that in because of the date today. Have a good one!

Matilda Clark's picture

Love this article - particularly the absolute foundation of 'no hurt' humour. A quotable humour wall is in the making and I am definitely going with humour moments every morning of test week. Thank you all.

FCH's picture
New Teacher

I believe humor provides a wonderful opportunity to connect with young scholars. An excellent occasion to incorporate humor is during a warm up or anticipatory set. I have observed many educators using their lives to comedic effect during the course of a lesson. Students respond because they recognize that their teacher makes mistakes, even embarrassing ones. But it does help that we, as educators, can laugh and make fun of ourselves.
In a recent discussion for my MSED program, I likened educators to comedians, simply because we are both social commentators. Comedians must stay abreast of current events, or they will lose their credibility. In comparison, teachers must stay abreast of the latest developments in their content area as well as current events that can affect their students' lives. While much of the news in today's world is in a serious vein, there are many offbeat stories that can make anyone smile.

While completing the training requirements for my provisional teaching license, I recall that almost all of our instructors incorporated comics within their lectures. The cartoons provided a mental break from the lesson as well time to reflect on its purpose within the lesson plan. Lately, I discovered Richard Benson's "F in "series of books, which are a collection of some of the best student test exam answers. (Example: To what was Hemingway referring with the quote 'This isn't fun anymore'? Answer: This exam.) I plan to incorporate some of the better responses in my lesson planning, as well as some of the examples Mr. Elias provided in his blog.

Hilary H's picture

I love this topic. We are always teaching to the test. We don't have much time for the "fun stuff" anymore. I teach second grade, and I have to make it interesting. I use humor everyday. I love to laugh with my students. Seeing a smile on their face helps me remember why I am there. I put funny questions, or comments in their tests to that they can even have a little fun while taking a test. I will purposely make a mistake to see them smile.

Natalie Suarez's picture

This topic is absolutely fantastic! I always try to use humor during my class because it always breaks the tension between the students and the teacher. Also, some of my students have told me how they dislike a teacher because they are always "angry" and they never smile. I teach ESOL and I always try to find humorous things from their culture and incorporate it in my class, that way I connect with their culture. Sometimes I do show my students a video at the end of the class of animals doing funny stuff or of a funny part at a cartoon show, but it is always at the end of the class, it encourages them to participate in class and do the work because they look forward to that laugh at the end of the class.

Walden's picture

I teach High school math and try to always incorporate humor in my classroom. Students love humor. It almost makes the forget that they are working on math. I always incorporate it if we are taking notes and write funny things on the notes and whenever I don't, they remind me that I am not. I think that humor brings the best out of people and it always creates a fun atmosphere. I love the fact that even though kids hate math, they always look forward to our class because they know they are going to have a good time when they don't even realize that they are doing math.

Erica Iweanoge's picture

Humor can help students relax in a classroom , usually in the morning just before I start morning meeting I always say that we need to relax and enjoy learning, and I always say something funny and we all have a good laugh, and this helps my students who are timid and afraid to express themselves and be more secure, humor is really refreshing to the student.

Cindy Mae's picture

I always use humor to grab the students attention and engage them in the lesson. Our school day has become so busy and we are not to waste a minute of precious instruction time, that humor seems to fall to the wayside. I think that is sad. We are dealing with kids and a great deal of stress from administration, humor is the perfect release. It helps me to form a relationship of respect with my students.

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