This Behavior Matters explores the importance of verbal skills in the classroom, reminding teachers that the way that they use their voice could be key to managing behavior

Some readers will remember the frustration of a having a sore throat and perhaps even a loss of voice during the first half term of their teaching career; other readers will be experiencing the problem right now! Teachers should try to remember that when managing the behavior of the pupils in your teaching groups, non-verbal skills are important. Facial expression, body posture, hand gestures, proximity and speed of movement are just a few of the key skills that contribute to the effectiveness of non-verbal techniques.

Verbal skills are also crucial in managing behavior, however, and these are the ones that we shall focus on here. They require a similar variety of techniques: volume, pace, pitch and tone will all contribute to the strength of the verbal message you are giving. All too often your emotions and feelings can have an adverse effect on your verbal delivery, and these can be affected by all kinds of outside influences. A late night, a bad journey to work, disagreement in the staffroom or a particularly difficult group of pupils may all contribute to the way you are feeling when you walk into the classroom.

As your feelings and thoughts drive your behavior, it is very easy to allow these negative thoughts to affect your verbal (and non-verbal) responses. Pupils will quickly make their own interpretations of your mood when faced with shouting or a tone of exasperation. Invariably, their responses will echo your own initial contact, and in this case you should bear in mind the concept of “voice matching”; for instance, if you are shouting, then the pupil will probably shout back, whereas if you are quieter and controlled then the pupil will be more likely to be calm in their reply.

It is very important that you are able to, not only recognize how you are feeling, being aware of all the internal and early warning signs (heart rate, temperature, negative thoughts), but also that you are able to manage these emotions. Your voice is a very powerful tool in the management of behavior, but if you allow your emotions to dictate how you use your voice, then the end result will be less effective, and pupils may well misinterpret your intended communication.

Remember, control of your voice is not simply about regulating the volume. Pitch and tone play an equally important part. The challenge is to be aware of your voice and have the necessary skills to control it.

Practical Tips

For the majority of people, hearing their own voice on an audio recording is not a pleasant experience:

“That’s not my voice!”
“Oh no! I don’t sound like that, do I?”

These are some of the more typical responses made when listening to recordings of your own voice. If this is your reaction when listening to some simple dialogue, imagine what your reaction might be if you could hear yourself when you are experiencing strong emotions; anger, annoyance or exasperation. Your normal pitch, tone and volume will all be significantly altered, and (to your ears especially) possibly not for the better!

Obtain the necessary permissions from managers and try recording yourself over a period of time. Play the tape back to a colleague; try to make an objective judgement of your performance. If it is not possible to use a tape recording, then have your colleague present in your teaching environment with a brief to analyze the use of your voice. Difficult though it may be, try to depersonalize the analysis when you review the comments. You are attempting to analyze the effectiveness of your voice.

Pay particular attention to how the pitch and tone of your voice affects the listener. Screechy, high-pitched voices are difficult to listen to over long periods of time and loud or shouting voices will certainly be heard, but it is most unlikely that the listener will be able to remember what was said. A dull, breathy voice will instill a feeling of apathy and disinterest – certainly not the feelings of excitement and enquiry that you want to convey in your lessons.

When addressing an individual pupil by name (usually their first name) ignore their behavior that has probably prompted you to speak to them, and concentrate on that first point of communication.

If you convey annoyance,

“JOHN!!!” (Very loud)

or apathy,

“Oh for goodness sake, John!” (Thoughts of here we go again)

chances are the pupil’s reaction will reflect your own mood.

Try to use a slight inflection in your voice, almost indicating a question. This is much easier to do with a name of two syllables, but even with a single syllable name, try to raise the pitch at the end of the name, as in the form of a question. You are simply trying to gain the pupil’s attention, not convey all your feelings in one word!

If you analyze your voice and differentiate it to match the requirements of the situation, you might even begin to enjoy audio recordings! It will certainly improve your effectiveness.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2008

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