From a very early age, children begin to learn and understand the complicated signs and signals of non-verbal communication

From that encouraging smile to the look that says ‘I know what you are doing’, children can be guided through the boundaries of what is expected of them with regard to their behaviour. When coupled with verbal instructions or positive comments you have an incredibly powerful means of communication. The concept of non-verbal reinforcement continues right through primary and secondary schools and is evident in all aspects of adult life. Some people may argue that in towns and cities it is getting out of control (and could be losing some of its initial impact). LED devices by the side of the road flash your current speed on a lighting panel as you drive by, complete with a smiley or sad face, depending on your speed! Restaurants proudly display signs to their customers, thanking them for ‘not smoking’ while post offices and banks thank customers for standing back and giving other customers privacy while being served. These are the ‘smiley face’ stickers used in Key Stage 1, but differentiated for adults. Schools already use all kinds of non-verbal communication: pupils’ charters, school policies and classroom rules. More often than not these all appear as written documents. They are on websites, in school handbooks and in the case of classroom rules they are listed and displayed on the classroom wall. This is fine for those who a) can read and b) those who take the trouble to look, but not so effective for all the rest. Any parents or teachers reading this will also sympathise with anyone attempting to reinforce rules/expectations by verbally repeating them over and over again. Many young people have mastered the skill of letting what goes in one ear go straight out of the other! Have a look around your own school or classroom. How many rules or expectations are presented as written documents (even though they are large and colourful)? How many of those same rules and expectations are reinforced by the use of signs/symbols or the use of pictorial representation?

Practical tips

Spend some time with your pupils and ask them to design suitable posters to convey school/classroom rules, but without the use of words. They should use only pictorial representation. Now try the same activity for posters or stickers to reinforce those same rules. The results can be both surprising and innovative. The use of relevant and eye catching posters, signs, etc, which do not solely rely on the use of written language can be powerful and effective in reinforcing the rules, boundaries and reward systems in a school environment.

Follow this link to an illustration by Bill Stott.

For many pupils, images are more effective, and most certainly less confrontational, than verbal reminders. Visual or non-verbal reminders also have the added benefit of being always ‘on show’, even when you are not present! It is important to be aware that, like verbal reinforcement, the effectiveness will be greatly reduced by familiarity. Using the same stickers, seeing the same posters (now also slightly torn and looking more than a little worn) will not maintain the same initial impact or interest level. As a start to using non-verbal reinforcement and reducing the use of word-based posters, try the following: 1. Write out your classroom rules and include visual interpretations for all the rules. 2. Do the same for all your verbal reinforcement statements (try to be more imaginative than simply using smiley or sad faces!) 3. Design or purchase non-verbal posters for a particular area of the classroom or school (reading area/library/corridor) which are a) non-verbal and b) reinforce the expectations for the use of that area. 4. Monitor the behaviour of the pupils in the chosen areas prior to, and after using the posters.

The intention is to improve behaviour, create a stimulating but reinforcing environment and, perhaps most importantly of all, provide you with effective, low-level behaviour management tools. Thus reducing the need to use verbal and written reinforcement.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2007

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