I spend a lot of time reading articles and books about classroom management and have noticed something: Very little of it mentions non-verbal classroom communication. This is interesting, especially when we take into account what Albert Mehrabian, an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at UCLA, reported after years of studying how humans communicate: In his studies, he found that when a listener is “unsure about what is being said,” or there is “incongruence” in conversation, s/he will “default” to reading body language or voice tones.
Let’s be more specific. Mehrabian argues that 55 percent of the messages we transmit to each other come from body movements, 38 percent from the voice—inflection, intonation, volume—and 7 percent from words.
55 percent of the messages we transmit to one another come not from what we say, but how we use our bodies! That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
With the help of Richard Churches’ book, Effective Classroom Communication Pocketbook, I’d like to delve into this topic and share a few tips to help teachers hone their non-verbal communication skills.
The Blaming Posture looks exactly like the picture you see to the left. It’s accusatory, hierarchical, intimidating, and does little to build rapport with students. Of course, teachers aren’t the only ones who resort the Blaming Posture. In fact, many of us only use it in response to a student who is pointing or accusing us!
Should you find yourself in a situation where a student is using this posture, Churches suggests that we use Placater Posture instead.
In the Placating Posture, your palms face upwards while you calmly, yet assertively tell the student what you want. This is not a form of posture you want to overuse, but it is a useful on rare occasions with students who are aggressive, angry, or making accusations. You may also find it useful if you are giving feedback or transmitting complicated information.
If you’ve used the Placater to make a difficult point to someone, end the sentence with the Leveller (the next, more assertive pattern).
When using the Leveller Posture, stand in a centered way with your palms down and hands slightly in front of you. This posture is ideal for when you want to be assertive or explain rules. It’s a non-threatening gesture that suggests to the listener that what you are saying is sincere and on his or her level. This position is very effective when you want to hold people’s attention.
As with all of these postures, you don’t need to exaggerate your body movement. Even slight posture adjustments will send a clear message.
Whenever I think about the Computing Posture, I’m reminded of a teacher I had in graduate school. The class was seminar-style, which meant that it was, for the most part, discussion-based and student-led. The professor would only chime in to maintain order or facilitate when we got stuck. When this happened, she would sit back in her chair, put her fist under her chin and her other arm below her elbow; then she would either look down at the floor, or stare off into the distance without saying anything.
This sent a very clear message to us: that we needed to stop talking for a minute and think. This posture was also an effective way to spark our curiosity. We wanted to know what our professor was thinking and what she might say after she had successfully computed her idea.
The Distracter is a posture that we should really avoid—unless we are joking around with students or presenting an aside.
When people use the Distracter, they move between different postures, appearing inconsistent. Distracting often occurs with new teachers when they start to feel nervous. In these situations, train yourself to adopt the Leveller more often and you will come across as more assertive and in control.
Sequencing is useful when you are teaching a lesson that includes stages in a process or steps in a journey. As you speak, allow your hand to move sideways, back and forth across your body. You can also do the same gesture moving away from you and towards the other person.
Another way to use the gesture is to start with your hand out in front and move it back towards you. This says, “Let’s back track from where we currently are”; it is also useful to reinforce points.