A large part of effective classroom management is building positive teacher/student relationships and a large part of that revolves around the use of effective communication skills, particularly, non-verbal skills.

Unfortunately many of us are not aware of the signals we subconsciously give out to our students, reinforcing and even triggering poor behaviour, disengagement and social isolation.

The role of non-verbal behaviours in the classroom is significant because we not only rely on them to express ourselves but we also rely on them to help us interpret the messages of others.

When our non-verbal cues are contradictory to what we are saying, or they send a message we don’t intend, relationships with our students may be irretrievably damaged.

For example, research has found that when our verbal and non-verbal behaviours don’t match each other (happy words with a sad or agitated expression/body language) individuals believe the non-verbal cues presented by a speaker over what is actually being said.

Given they can override our words in their importance to others, non-verbal behaviours are fundamentally important because they can ‘tell’ others what we are really thinking and feeling about them or the situation.

That is, they can reveal attitudes and emotions that can do damage to our reputations as professionals and our ability to teach effectively.

Non-verbal behaviours then, are complicit in leading to misunderstandings as much as understanding, have influence before a conversation starts, can express things words cannot or should not, and are generally proritised.

Essentially, non-verbal behaviours exist before, during and after language and have a range of functions, including producing messages and processing them, forming impressions of others, expressing emotions, making connections, managing conversations, and even deceiving others.

While non-verbal behaviours can be both spontaneous and deliberative, that is used purposefully, it is the non-verbal behaviours we exhibit without conscious awareness that can create issues within our classrooms.

As mentioned, our non-verbal behaviours can reveal attitudes and biases that we may think we have concealed or that we don’t know we actually have, yet they may be keenly felt when observed by our students.

For example, the way we stand when near some students may reflect an inclusive and relaxed posture while our stance near another student/s may reflect an entirely different attitude in even neutral situations. 

So what are non-verbal behaviours and how do we manage them?

Non-verbal behaviours or body language encompasses a range of things including facial expressions, gestures, paralinguistics (tone of voice, loudness, inflection and pitch), body language and posture, proxemics (personal space), eye contact, and haptics (touch).

All of these can alter the way in which our verbal messages are interpreted and perceived by our students altering the way in which they respond to us in both positive and negative ways.

That is, they can create closeness and they can create distance depending on what we do.

Research has found that to create and maintain positive teacher/student relationships we need to build and maintain non-verbal immediacy with our students.

Immediacy is defined as behaviours that increase psychological closeness between individuals, and is described as one of the most important types of teacher behaviours influencing student outcomes.

It is created when students observe teachers making eye contact, using vocal variety, and moving around the classroom in ways that suggest acceptance, inclusion and connection with them.

There is a great deal of research around the impact of non-verbal behaviours on students including perceptions of teacher power, influence, clarity, effectiveness and credibility as well as student motivation and affective learning.

It has also been suggested as a way in which teachers can influence those students who are aggressive or in other ways resistant.

Given the influence of non-verbal behaviours in the classroom it is crucial that we become aware of the way in which we move around our classrooms and the ways in which we might inadvertently treat students differently via our non-verbal behaviours.

Self-awareness is something that I have written about quite a lot because it is at the heart of becoming more effective in the classroom.

Becoming aware of the sub-conscious biases that we all hold is essential to being able to have a truly inclusive classroom and shouldn’t be something we shy away from or feel bad about.

The formation of biases is simply the brains way of taking mental shortcuts when processing information about the people in our world and about situations.

If our brains didn’t do this it would require too much energy and effort for it to process each person and each moment in its entirety because we receive too many pieces of data to manage any other way.

The implicit attitudes and biases we hold are formed below conscious awareness and are created through our experiences, the emotions connected to these experiences, as well as the dominant attitudes of our family, community and culture.

Implicit biases are very different to explicit biases – those we are aware of – because implicit bias not only operates below awareness but these biases may also go against the values and beliefs we believe we hold.

Being aware of these biases, especially those that go against who we think we are, allows us to manage them in the classroom so they do not unfairly compromise our students’ opportunities for social and academic success.

Coming to awareness of them can be confronting for many people, yet the process isn’t about judging or condemning yourself it’s simply about knowing so that you can change or manage them as required.

To start the process it may be worth practicing self-observation – that is ‘catching yourself’ when you’re with different groups of students or indeed asking a colleague to observe you.

Once you recognise where your non-verbal behaviours differ from group to group you can consciously address the differences so that you become more engaged with and connected to those you haven’t previously.

Making note of student responses will help to guide you in how those changes may be improving your relationships and even the behaviour in your classroom.

Teaching is a complicated profession that relies on a tricky balance between building bonds and maintaining distance.

Being aware of the subtle ways we can build bonds via our non-verbal behaviours can ease the stress and tension teachers can feel trying to engage with students they may find problematic for a range of reasons.

Bringing awareness to our non-verbal behaviours helps to build bridges with a broader group of students, not just those we have a natural affinity with.