The power of nonverbals

Entertainers are known to be able to “read the room.” The same can be said for public speaking. Yet, do we think the same about educators? I believe that having my undergraduate degrees in education and journalism (from the Diederich College of Communication) afforded me the perfect mix of reading and adjusting to the room.

I don’t remember being taught in my education classes how important nonverbals can be in a classroom setting. In the lessons on classroom management, we focused much of our time on classroom spaces or (re)directing student behaviors. I don’t say that to discount those strategies; what I learned about classroom management is some of the most valuable knowledge I use daily (including outside the classroom). And those lessons will be the subject of future blog posts. But what enhanced the lessons I learned in my education classes were the ones I was taught in my communication classes. The perfect kismet was the integration of those education and communication strategies.

One of the most valuable was (and is) the power of nonverbal communication in our classrooms. And the power is two-fold: reading the room and adjusting to it.

Read the room

Some of the most common nonverbals we encounter in a classroom include:

  • Eye gaze: location of looking, staring, brow furrows, blinking rates
  • Facial expression: smiles, frowns, happiness, sadness, anger
  • Proxemics: distance and closeness; personal space
  • Appearance: attire, cleanliness, physical health
  • Body language and postures

It also can include more uncommon considerations, such as artifact selection (images, avatars), haptics (touch), and paralinguistics (tone, loudness, pitch).

Each nonverbal communication strategy can help teachers recognize what students need without directly asking them. Being able to “read the room” allows us to engage with our students in ways that focus on their emotional state and attentiveness. For example, suppose a student’s body language is more fetal (meaning they’re tightly wrapped and tucked within themselves, such as with arms and legs crossed and nearest to their core). In that case, they are likely uncomfortable or attempting to remove themselves from the situation.

These are also important to teach our students, which can help them recognize the impact of their nonverbal communication. Being conscious of how we are read will help us consider how people see us (i.e., an RBF or a poker face). But it also can go deeper.

I think a lot about appearance (which those who know me probably aren’t surprised about). I am hyperconscious of how I’m seen, including the perception of my attire in my classrooms. My students know that I often Miss Frizzle the lesson and wear clothing or colors that reflect the content. However, I think about this beyond fashion. I think about how appearance can help me think about student needs, such as subtle cues related to pain, poverty, and pressure—recognizing how a student’s appearance shifts help me read if they’re in trouble or need.

Being able to understand nonverbals helps me to respond accordingly.

Adjust to it

Understanding nonverbal communication strategies in my classrooms helps me build connections with students that are holistic and individual. It also helps me shift lessons and activities to be responsive to growing student needs. Here are a few ways you can do the same:

  • When students are in small groups for group work, watch how they move and respond to one another. Oftentimes, if students seem closed off, that is a perfect time to join the group and see how they are doing or to redirect/guide the conversation. It also could mean something deeper is there, which we shouldn’t ignore as teachers.
  • In large lectures, and we all know this one, the more foreheads we see, the less engaged students are with the content (and there is a difference between taking notes and taking a mental nap). This is a perfect time to interrupt the environment by taking a poll, adding some music, or allowing students to think-pair-share.
  • Your proxemics matter. Invite someone to observe you teaching to map where you move in the room. Where you stand and how you move can reveal something about your comfort or authority. Keep in mind… standing in front of the room, and only in front of the room, says a lot about you as a teacher. And just because it is a lecture doesn’t mean you have to confine yourself to a podium.
  • The classroom space also reveals nonverbal cues. Just because the room was designed a certain way doesn’t mean you have to keep it that way for your lesson. You can tell by how students nonverbally interact if the room elicits a helpful environment. Feel free to move desks if the rows aren’t working. Utilize a circle to enhance discussion and allow students to see one another’s faces. Create pods to promote group work.
  • The more students’ body language reads closed off, the more likely they aren’t confident. I like to turn that into a teachable moment to introduce the Wonder Woman pose. Teach students to look up, put their shoulders back and chest forward, make fists, and rest their fists on their hips–elbows outward, and, if able, stand with their fit spread should-width apart. Doing this for a few seconds while concentrating on breathing will help lower your cortisol levels. This means reducing stress-inducing hormones! (Do this to build confidence and power!).

One of the things I also consider is not to take everything so seriously either. Nonverbal communication is a powerful tool in our classrooms, but it is necessary not to read too much into everything. If you do, you will spend more time analyzing and less time activating. You’ll spend more time thinking you are doing something wrong and less time finding ways to strengthen the environment.

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