This Behaviour Matters deals with the use of non-verbal cues for classroom management, suggesting practical solutions to instil discipline without having to raise your voice

Possibly the best time to observe non-verbal instructions in a school environment is during the primary school assembly!

The whole school is seated in the hall, children in class group rows, the staff seated (usually on chairs) down the sides of the hall. Non-verbal instructions or signals can be observed throughout the assembly. Teacher will be using “the look”. In other words willing the misbehaving student to turn and look at them (eyes staring, fixed on the target student and non-verbal signal accessories poised and ready for action!

The most common instructions are usually given by using the index finger:

  • The index finger pointing towards where the target student should move.
  • The index finger placed over the lips meaning “Be quiet.”
  • The index finger vertical and curling towards the teacher, meaning “Come here!”
  • The index finger outstretched vertically and swaying to and fro, meaning “No! Don’t you dare.”

There may be several other, less pleasant, signals that may be observed, but the above are probably the most common.

Even young children quickly understand the meaning behind such non-verbal directions and will comply with the direction. Unfortunately, most non-verbal instructions remain very general and often negative. If it is true that children understand non-verbal instructions, and do indeed comply with them, then there is a very strong argument for extending the use of this tactic and refining your systems, thereby:

  • Allowing you to manage situations without the embarrassment and the peer pressure often generated by verbal instructions.
  • Allowing you to “tailor” specific non-verbal instructions for individual students.
  • Giving you a unique style which students often enjoy and will strengthen your relationship with individuals.
  • Giving you more stages (particularly low level) within your in-class behaviour policy and preventing situations escalating to high-level responses and reducing your use of consequences.

Your non-verbal instructions or signals can be developed on a three-stage model:

1. Instructions which are used consistently and on a whole-school basis.

2. Instructions and signals which you use specifically for your own teaching groups in addition to the whole-school techniques.

3. Instructions and signals you have jointly agreed and developed with individual students, in addition to those used through the whole school and class-wide

Practical Tips

Many staff will already be using some of the above and will no doubt have devised a range of “extras.” It is vital, to aid understanding, that signals intended for whole-school use should be used consistently by all staff. Instructions and signals devised by yourself for use in your own classroom, and for individual students, should be taught in the same manner that you teach any other part of the curriculum.

1.Teach precisely what actions you will use, and what response you expect.

2. Check for understanding by questioning students on the instructions.

3. Practise the instructions with your students, rewarding appropriate responses.

4. Repeat the above stages regularly and, if possible, use visual (written and pictorial) reminders in the classroom.

A typical and well-used example of this would be to use the following technique to gain the attention of a group of students: Adult raises right arm in the air, meaning students should:

  • Raise their right arms, indicating both understanding and prompting those who are not yet complying.

It is no use trying to use any of these techniques without clearly teaching them to the students.

It is worthwhile spending some time devising a range of non-verbal signals you can use. Such techniques often prove even more effective if you devise them jointly with the students. This is particularly relevant if you are intending to use them with an individual student.

Don’t forget to share your signals with your colleagues. Whenever a colleague has to cover your class, it is always good practice for them to be able to retain the systems that you have already established.

Be as inventive as you like with your non-verbal instructions. Students do appreciate a novel approach to behaviour management. Remember that the instructions and signals should be equally shared between positive and negative. There is a danger that you may develop a whole range of signals to remind students when they are off task, but only use a “thumbs up” as a reward! A good starting point when trying to devise a range of signals is to start with a list of all the occasions for which you currently use your voice. Now give your voice a break and try some alternative approaches.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2008

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher level. He has worked in mainstream, special and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.