Non-verbal instructions and signalled reminders can be highly effective in managing student behaviour, but are you sure that your messages are being interpreted accurately?

Non-verbal signals have been used in schools for years. The simple ‘Shh’ indicator with index finger on lips, the thumbs-up and the ‘come here’ curl of the finger are perhaps the most widely recognised. But spend some time in a school assembly with your eyes on members of staff and you will immediately see a whole range of non-verbal signals being used to manage behaviour. Indicators with hands, a nod of the head and one of the best – ‘the look’ – are just a few of the techniques used.

Can you be certain that the target student, or students, fully understand what is meant by your signals and reminders? For some students your intended ‘Stop that right now!’ look will simply be interpreted as: ‘Why is that teacher looking at me?’ If you then have to add a verbal reminder to your covert message for the student to fully understand, the whole concept of using non-verbal techniques is lost.

Even unintentional signals can be misinterpreted by students and can in fact have a detrimental effect on their behaviour. Hands on hips, folded arms or clicking fingers can send an altogether mixed message to one who does not understand. Students who interpret your signals as hostile, disinterested or overly authoritarian will almost certainly display inappropriate behaviour in return.

It’s probably worth differentiating non-verbal signals into two clear categories:

  1. Signals we inadvertently convey from our day-to-day body language and facial expressions.
  2. Signals we use intentionally as an aid for managing the behaviour of students.

Body language such as shrugging shoulders, open palms or clenched fists, position of arms (on hips/folded) and our general non-verbal demeanour, together with the speed and manner in which we walk towards a student, can have very strong influences on behaviour. The challenge for us as role models is to try to be aware of how we appear to others – certainly a difficult task without the use of video/film cameras!

The signals we consciously use in the management of students are many and varied. None are of much use if only you know what they mean! Whether you are using non-verbal signals with a group or with an individual, they must be taught, understood and practised before they can be effective.

Practical Tips
As already stated, it is quite difficult to see yourself as others see you, and therefore being aware of, and even changing, our day to day style of body language can present a problem.

Obviously if you have the facility to film yourself while teaching (be aware of all legal requirements before embarking on this method) then you should be able to view a reasonably accurate picture of yourself and thus spot all the major influences in your body language. However, an accurate (and less fraught) method would be to partner with a colleague who is prepared to observe you in action and feed back their observations to you. Remember to focus purely on non-verbal signals and body language. It is also important to remember that each individual will interpret non-verbal language according to their own experience and understanding. For example, standing with your hands in your pockets or leaning back in your chair with your arms folded could convey a message of total disinterest or a relaxed demeanour.

It would probably be beneficial if on initial observations you limited feedback to actual descriptions of your non-verbal language rather than an interpretation of them. You may well be surprised at some of your mannerisms and actions, which could in turn explain some of the responses you get from difficult students.

In summary: the non-verbal signals we use to manage behaviour must first be explained and clearly taught so that students understand them. These signals might convey the following:

  • You want to gain the whole class/group attention
  • You are requesting quiet/silence
  • You want students to sit appropriately (all chair legs on the floor)
  • You want to express approval or disapproval
  • You want to convey a command, eg ‘stop’, ‘come in’, ‘sit down’ and so on.

All need careful explanation if they are to be effective. Don’t forget, however, that whichever signals you choose to use, the student will not just see the covert signal you are using, but will also link it to your body language and facial expression. Their own experiences and emotions will influence their interpretation and this will clearly be the driver for their response and subsequent behaviour.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2010

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.