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Effective Nonverbal Communication in the Classroom: Examples And Strategies

Here’s how to implement nonverbal communication strategies in your classroom – easily.

In this video, Michael Grinder, the pioneer of nonverbal communication, demonstrates how teachers can leverage nonverbals in four ways:

While getting your students’ attention;
While you’re teaching;
During the transition to seatwork;
During seatwork.

Read the modified transcript to “Effective Nonverbal Communication in the Classroom: Examples And Strategies

Hi, my name is Michael Grinder.

Have you ever wondered why people talk about nonverbal communication in the classroom? You might be curious to learn that over 80% of what you communicate is not what you say – it’s how you say it and then what you do with the rest of your body.

So we’re going to show you some strategies and organize them in four different components. We’re going to talk about:

  1. The nonverbals when you’re trying to get your student’s attention
  2. The nonverbals while you’re teaching
  3. The nonverbals when you transition into them doing a reinforcement called “seatwork”
  4. The nonverbals during seatwork itself

When you finish this, you’re going to have a whole list of skills. Most of these skills come from our book, ENVoY. It stands for Educational Non Verbal Yardsticks.

ENVoY is your ambassador to understanding nonverbal classroom strategies in terms of how you get their attention, teach, transition to seatwork, and engage during seatwork.

Nonverbal Strategies to get your class’s attention

So, how do you get your class’s attention? Maybe you’re doing a variety of things and you’ve got to figure out how to pause your body to indicate to them to pause. If you’re walking to the front of the room and you’re saying, “Hey, look up here,” that’s not going to work because you’re contradicting yourself. Your nonverbals are indicating walk, but your verbal is indicating stop.

So if I may, the #1 rule when getting their attention – pause; whether you pause your full body or at least a frozen hand gesture. Once you indicate to them that you want their attention, keep it very brief and make sure you’re just above the volume level of the class.

Our second rule is “just above.” That means if they’re really working quietly, you have to say quietly: “class.” If they’re very noisy: “class!”

First, freeze your body. Second, get your volume above. Then freeze with a hand. “Class! Class.” The frozen hand gesture works on an easy day. On a hard day, the whole body has to be frozen.

Once you have their attention, start teaching.

Nonverbal cues while you’re teaching

One of the things you’re going to find helpful when you’re teaching is, if you can, talk with your hands. Hands communicate a tremendous amount of information, and it’s interesting to the class.

But, you have to make sure as you are talking to pause, from time to time, pause. When you pause, keep the hand frozen because it indicates to them, “I’m not done yet – there’s more to come.” 

The pause also helps whatever you say after the content and before the content – they’re joined together. Why? Because of that frozen hand? Yes. It’s so powerful. Whenever you can, if you want them to really remember something, make sure you turn and point to something visual.

Now notice, we didn’t say just turn and point – our eyes went with us. So, eye and hand coordination. Eyes and hands looking at the same information will make a huge difference.

If you don’t believe me, try this: be in your classroom and point to something, but look at the class. Where do their eyes go? Back on you. They’re not looking where you’re pointing. So, to support your nonverbal hand gesture, make sure your eyes go with it at the same time.

It may sound funny, but you also have to be next to the content. Imagine this: here’s my projection and I’m looking down at what they’re going to see, but the content is way behind me on the board. It’s too far away. I’ve got to have my body next to the content for them to understand.

So, if you want, whenever you are getting their attention and you want to make sure that they go into some kind of content, go visual with that content. Your eyes and hands must support the content.

Now we’ve covered the skills in terms of how you get their attention:

  • Freeze your body (or at least part of it)
  • Then, make sure your voice is just above their volume
  • During that pause, use your frozen hand gesture
  • Finally, drop down to a whisper.

The third thing we said was, if you could, show your students something that they can go to immediately, making sure your eyes and hands are pointing in the same direction.

Now, once you get into teaching, as we mentioned, make sure you use your hands on a regular basis and pause on a regular basis. It’ll make a huge difference. It allows you to breathe. It allows them to catch their breath. And you’re connecting what you said before and what you said after that pause.

How to nonverbally answer students’ questions

Now the question is, you have some questions that they’re going to ask you. What do you do about those questions from a nonverbal standpoint? 

So let’s pretend I’m off to the side of this room, and someone on the same side I’m on asked me a question. What will happen is, I will tend to step towards that person and engage them with my eyes. What will be interpreted by the other half of the room is, “this is a private conversation.” They’ll tend to go off task because they don’t see it as pertaining to them.

So, here’s what you want to do. Whenever you get a question and the hand goes up, try not to look at that hand, but make sure that you recognize that the hand went up. Then continue to talk. Walk over to the opposite side of the room. From this side of the room, go ahead and call on the person.

Why is it so important? You’ll be amazed.

Wherever your eyes are, you are managing. Wherever your body is, you’re managing. So make sure that you are on the opposite side of the room so that your body manages the people here, but your eye’s are looking over there: manage there.

That’s why when you take Speech 101, they always say; look at the back row of your audience. Why? Because your body will maintain engagement with the front of the room and your eyes will maintain engagement with the back of the room. 

What do you do if you get caught on the same side? 

So, I’m over here and I’ve engaged with the student. I understand what they’re saying, but I know I’m losing the other half of the room. 

It’s easy – make sure you walk over to the opposite side of the room of the student and go visual with something. Your excuse was, “I had to go over here to write.” 

That means that if you get caught on the same side, just go to the opposite side of the room, write, and you’ll be absolutely fine. 

How to nonverbally transition to seatwork

We’ve covered getting students’ attention and what to do when you’re teaching. Now we’re getting ready to go into having the students do the reinforcement work, sometimes called seatwork. How do you go about doing that nonverbally? 

So, during seatwork, you want to leave the front of the room and help individual students one-on-one. To do that, you have to leave a representation of your expectations at the front of the room.

How do you do that? Go visual. Make sure you’re really detailed on what they have to do. Try to cover:

  1. What are we doing?
  2. How are we doing it? What are the materials that are needed?
  3. When do they finish?
  4. Where do they put it?
  5. What do they do next?

Cover those five instructions, and you’ll be fine in terms of them being involved. It’s called “exit directions” because you’re exiting from the front of the room and going out to help students.

Here’s a tip for all grade levels: when you have finished your exit directions, go like this: “Any questions?” If you teach middle school, also point and say “about this.” Otherwise, there are no rhetorical questions at the middle school level. 

When you have a question that comes up, in addition to answering it verbally, make sure you write it down. Why? Because you’re going to answer it three more times during seatwork. Make sure you go visual with your information. 

Some teachers love to go non-verbal. Here are my exit directions, and I use a different color for the additional information because then it highlights them. It marks it off in their mind. That handles the transition. 

Then from second grade on there’s a second skill, and you go like this: “You may begin.” Stay still for 20 seconds. If a student starts coming towards you, try to stop them without making eye contact. Indicate for them to go back. 

At the end of 20 seconds, you have created a very nice atmosphere. Even if they’re doing cooperative learning, it’s a lower volume level. Have them engage and then go out and help.

How to use nonverbals during seatwork

Now for the last phase of the lesson during seatwork. I look over and see someone is not engaged. I have to ask myself a very important question; can they do the work? If the answer is yes, I can manage. If the answer is no, they don’t need a manager. They need a teacher. 

If they can do the work, say their name. They’ll look up at you, and then your eyes and hand go towards – and redirect them towards – the exit directions so they go back on task.

If you can, the most successful managers always manage from a distance. We know walking over and being next to them will gain their attention, but if you can do it from a distance, it’s even more important.

Bonus tips from ENVoY

How to use power and influence in the classroom

Finally, there are two more skills that we want to talk about. The first has to do with understanding when you are approaching the student one-on-one. Do you use power or do you use influence? 

Do you know the difference? So, here’s a chart that explains what the difference is:

  • If you are close to the student, you literally are using power.
  • If you come up to the side of the student, you’re using influence.
  • If you go verbal, you’re using power.
  • If you go nonverbal, it’s much more powerful in terms of influence.
  • Where are your eyes when you’re approaching that student? If you’re looking at them and you make eye contact, oftentimes it’ll escalate from a management situation into a discipline situation. Don’t.
  • So, where do I look? Look at their work. It’ll make a nice difference.

If you can, the farther away you can get them from being off task to at least neutral is by using “Pause, stop, wait.” You’ll be amazed. A lot of times, if they can do the work, they’ll go on task by themselves.

That’s our first extra skill that we want to cover. 

How to use approachable and credible voice patterns

The second extra skill that we want to cover is: understanding your voice and your breathing.

Most of the time, we talk about voice patterns of being “credible” – when my voice comes out flat like this. “Approachable” is when my voice comes out like this.

We know that the lower the grade level you teach, the more you use the approachable voice pattern. The higher the grade level you teach, the more you mix the two of them together.

What is the difference between that approachable voice pattern and that credible voice pattern?

  • First, understand that it’s produced by your head. If your head is bobbing, you’re being approachable. If your head is still, you’re being credible.
  • When you’re being approachable, you are seeking information. Use it anytime you want to have an engagement. “So class, who knows,” that voice going up and down encourages people to absolutely participate.
  • There’s other times when you want to indicate – what I’m about to say is not open to negotiation. “You need to work now.” I made sure I kept my head still and dropped my chin at the very, very end.

So if you would, your extra skill is credible versus approachable. Make sure you understand how to do both. 

Michael Grinder here. Thank you for letting me share all this information and the two extras from ENYoY.

Enjoy being a teacher. We appreciate that you are in education.

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