5 Ways Teachers Can Use Non-Verbal Communications to Improve Classroom Engagement

Do you sometimes feel that your students don’t respect you? That they zone out during lessons? Or they talk back when you address their behavior? Your body language might be the culprit.

5 Ways Teachers Can Use Non-Verbal Communications to Improve Classroom Engagement

As a new teacher, I struggled with management. I spent entire Saturdays planning my lessons, routines, and behavior plans for the week. Sometimes, I arrived at school before 7 a.m. and left well past dark. I even graded papers on the train. Six hours of sleep per night was the norm. But regardless of my efforts, when I delivered the lessons, students were off task, outcomes were mediocre, and I felt deep down that students didn’t really respect me.

I was told to observe a teacher down the hall who had excellent management. When I did, I was blown away. She had 100% student compliance, 100% of the time. It wasn’t the strategies she used, or the behavior systems she had in place (I had those too) — it was her presence. The confident way she carried herself, and her powerful tone and energy, sent an incredibly loud and clear message — I am in charge. And that’s what I was missing.

Steps to Improve Your Non-Verbal Communication

Research shows that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken. In short, your body and tone are telling students whether or not they should respect you, not your words.

The great news is, there is a lot we can do about this. It turns out that our body language not only determines how others feel about us, it also impacts how we feel about ourselves. According to a Harvard study completed by the social psychologist Amy Cuddy, standing in a posture of confidence when we are insecure actually makes us feel more powerful. In other words, she proved that we can “fake it ‘til we make it.”

Here is how to start making improvements:

1) Observe powerful speakers

Watch videos of people whose presence you admire and pay attention to how they carry themselves and communicate (for me, President Obama is a prime example). How do they hold their head? How do they make eye contact? What do they do with their arms and hands? When do they pause? What do they do when they pause? What kind of faces do they make? If they are walking, when do they stop? What do they do when they stop?

Now, video yourself teaching and analyze your presence and communication as you did with the speaker you just observed. The best time to record is when you are teaching your most difficult class, or at the most difficult time of day. If you are like most people and do not have a video of yourself, record one immediately — your learnings will be well worth the effort (and feeling of embarrassment). An easier way to get started is by using a lesson that you are planning to teach soon. Teach the lesson as you normally would using a recording device and pretend the students are in front of you. Watch the video afterwards, asking yourself the same questions you asked about the previous video. How are you holding your head? What are you doing with your hands? ...

Finally, write down your “tells.” What makes you appear nervous, weak, frustrated, or casual? Maybe you touch your hair, or you have terrible posture. Perhaps you bite your nails or say “umm,” maybe you don’t have a clear, concise message. Keep practicing until you eliminate your tells.

2) Control your hands

When you are saying something important your hands need to convey that message. If you are playing with your shirt or nervously touching your hair or face, it sends a message that you aren’t confident in what you are saying. If you aren’t confident in what you say, think of how students feel. Hands should be free when possible (on your hips, clasped in front of you, or behind your back) and used only with careful, deliberate gestures. Remember the video of yourself. What were you doing with your hands? What were your tells? Stop doing them and fold your hands behind your back if you need to.


3) Square up your posture

Imagine there is a string attached to the top of your head that is pulling you up towards the ceiling. Your head is high, your shoulders are back, and your spine is straight. Once you have that perfectly squared posture, take a deep breath and loosen just a bit. That’s the zone of a powerful posture. Just one or two notches down from rigidly upright.

4) Move around the room

Walk around the room as much as possible when you are teaching. This gives the impression that you are omnipresent and keeps students on task. Also, you want to show that you own the space you’re in, and taking over it with your body is the best way to do that.

When you are about to say something important or give directions, stop, plant your feet, and center your weight. This strategy is even more effective if you choose to pause near students who are less engaged. Sometimes proximity serves as an effective deterrent of bad behavior.

5) Use a formal, enthusiastic tone

It should be clear that you are excited about what you are teaching and you should be animated and relatable. However, keep a formal tone. Think about how you would speak on a job interview. Students will take what you are saying more seriously. However, if you need to correct a student’s behavior, use a different, quieter tone. The whole class does not need to hear that Chase needs to push in his chair. Even better, use silent signals. Publicly correcting students highlights non-compliance — possibly shaming a student (who might push back to save face) or draw attention to the fact that non-compliance is happening (and may inadvertently encourage more non-compliance, as described by the Broken Window Theory). Dignifying non-compliance and alerting all of your students that your authority was and can be undermined makes you appear weak. And in the classroom, perception is reality.

Developing a strong presence is easier for some than it is for others, but it is absolutely a skill that can be developed and is well worth your practice. Once you have habituated the technique, you will automatically be strong, powerful, and respected by your class and can focus on instruction.

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