More Than Your Words

It’s never easy, yet getting it right is critical to your students’ success, not to mention
your sanity.

It’s classroom management.

by Leanne Miller

Thanks to teachers at Toronto’s Jarvis CI for their help illustrating some non-verbal management signs.

A teacher can’t get his students’ attention and his volume starts to rise. He glares at them and tells them to look at the board. Some do; most don’t. His volume increases again: “Don’t look at me; look at the board.” Some kids squirm; most still look at their teacher.

While telling the students to look at the board, the teacher’s non-verbal message, conveyed by his eyes, is to look at him. No one is going to look away from a teacher in this situation. The teacher has sent a mixed message and increased the likelihood of having to discipline some students.

Teachers trained in non-verbal classroom management spend more time on content, less time on management, and have more energy at the end of their work day. That’s the contention of American teacher and education consultant Michael Grinder, and other experts.

Grinder studied more than 6,000 classrooms to identify the behaviours of teachers who manage them well. He discovered that matching verbal and non-verbal messages is essential in effective management and instruction. From his research, Grinder developed a training program and resources to preserve relationships and gain compliance in the classroom.


On their level!

English curriculum leader Lorne Kulak places himself on the same level as a student and, pointing to a problem, looks at it with the student.

Expanding on Grinder’s and others’ work, American education specialist Kendall Zoller developed Nonverbal Communicative Intelligence (NCI). NCI includes the systematic use of gesture, voice, breathing and other non-verbal signals to enhance communication.

“Everything we do as teachers has an influence in the classroom,” says Claudette Landry, a former teacher, vice-principal and curriculum consultant with the Toronto DSB. “By speaking loudly, we inadvertently communicate that students should also speak loudly. NCI teaches us skills, methods and strategies to increase the congruence between verbal and non-verbal communication.”

Landry now works with Zoller delivering non-verbal classroom management workshops throughout North America. “NCI does not itself build a healthy classroom,” she explains. “Rather, it supports and extends the methodology the teacher already uses. By preventing escalation, it helps preserve the relationship and routines teachers have already developed with their students.”

“NCI is about getting students’ attention for teaching and learning, and then ensuring they stay on task.”

Landry says, “NCI is about getting students’ attention for teaching and learning, and then ensuring they stay on task.” Teachers will still have to discipline students, but using NCI decreases the frequency.

First, teachers must identify each student’s dominant learning style: visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Primary students tend more toward the kinesthetic, adolescents toward auditory, and older children and adults are more visual, Landry explains. “It’s the auditory and kinesthetic students who need more managing in the classroom, and NCI helps train them to be more visual and therefore more compliant.”

She makes an important distinction between classroom management and teaching: “We didn’t join the profession to become police officers or prison guards. We became teachers because we care about kids, our subject matter and helping students learn and be successful. NCI helps you manage children first so then you can help them learn.”

Congruency is one of the most important elements of NCI. “Don’t send mixed messages,” Landry explains. “If you want students to look at the chalkboard, tell them to look, point to it, and then you look at the board too. Don’t look at them.”

Getting attention

One effective attention-getting tool is “above, pause, whisper” and was originally described by Michael Grinder. Class volumes fluctuate every five to seven seconds. Don’t try to talk over them when they’re loud. Wait a few seconds for the next lull and then speak. Make sure your volume is two notches above that of the students so that you interrupt them. Once you have their attention, pause a few seconds and then start your message in a whisper. This lowers the group’s metabolism, allows you to hold students’ attention and lets them hear your message.

All teachers have a range of voices. Grinder discovered two types effective in classroom management. The credible voice has little modulation. Tone drops at the end of sentences. The speaker’s chin lowers a bit at the end of sentences. Newscaster Peter Mansbridge uses a consummate credible voice.

Keep head, body, face, arms and hands still when using the credible voice. Nothing should distract from what you are saying. Actions, voice tone and words all communicate the same message. Use the credible voice when giving instructions, delivering teacher-centred lessons and covering important content. Use it when you want to hold students’ attention and don’t want questions or comments.


Look at this!

Latin and English teacher David Dewees reinforces his message when asking students to look at the board by looking there as well.

The approachable voice is the opposite of credible and uses much modulation. Intonation regularly rises and falls. The voice has rhythmic, even melodic tones. The head moves up and down, arms and hands move and are open. The approachable voice invites discussion, encourages participation and makes students feel warm and welcome.

Try it yourself and hear the difference in this sentence: “Boys and girls, I’d like your attention now please.”

It’s time to begin your first lesson of the day. You listen to the volume, wait for a lull and speak two levels above it. “Class, please look in this direction.”

You pause to ensure you have everyone’s attention and then you drop your volume to begin. Now remember congruency. “If you’re using your credible voice, make sure your body language is credible too,” Landry comments.

She advises consistently standing in the same spot when you want students’ attention. “This lets the visuals see you and the auditories hear you. Regularly using this technique trains students that this is the time for them to be attentive. After a while, when you stand in that spot, you will have their attention without having to say a word.”

Using stillness

Body language speaks volumes, so if you want your students to be still, you be still yourself. A still body also helps deliver content. Kendall Zoller talks about the impact of “freeze body” on students.

Try this. Using your credible voice, walk and talk: “Boys and girls, today we are going to talk about a very important year in Canadian history: 1867. The year Canada became an independent country.”

Now say it again but pause and freeze your body before you say 1867. The words may be the same but the impact is significant. You’ll have even more impact if you hold the pause for a few seconds.

The visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners are watching and listening. If your body language and emphasis match your words, you are more likely to connect with all your students and your message will have more impact.

The freeze-body technique is especially effective with the easily distracted kinesthetic learner. Zoller argues that if you are moving and talking, kinesthetics may be watching more than listening. To get them to listen and focus, it makes sense to stand still and talk.

“Kinesthetics need more time to retrieve and process information … The best thing you can do is wait.”

“An effective freeze-body implemented when delivering important content can enhance memory and focus for all three learner types in your class,” Zoller says.

Pausing is another non-verbal technique.

“Tony, can you please tell us one of the main differences between coniferous and deciduous trees?” Silence. “Tony, do you remember yesterday we talked about pine trees and maple trees? Do you remember which is deciduous and which is coniferous?” Silence. Gentle pushing: “Tony, what kind of tree is that right outside our window? Do you know?” Silence.

The keen teacher keeps asking Tony questions to help him answer the first one correctly. Landry thinks that if Tony is a kinesthetic learner, this type of pushing is the least helpful thing a teacher can do. “Kinesthetics need more time to retrieve and process information. As much as six seconds more than other children,” Landry says. “The best thing you can do is wait.”

She encourages teachers to ask one good question and then keep quiet and let Tony think about it. Once you have bombarded him with questions, you shut him down. He doesn’t know which question to answer, and his thinking becomes muddled.

When teachers give students three or more seconds of undisturbed wait time, the outcomes include longer and more correct responses, fewer I-don’t-knows and more volunteered answers.

Show, don’t say

Another technique is show, don’t say. “Class, you have this many minutes to complete this activity.” Don’t say the number; hold up two fingers.

“Class, turn to this page please.” Write 27 on the board, point to it and look at it, not at your students. Keep looking at the board for a few seconds and don’t say the number. The students will look up to see the number. There’s always one child who will ask what page. Just point to the board.

This show-don’t-say technique encourages auditory and kinesthetic students to become more visual.

NCI encourages teachers to associate instruction with actions and train students to read their gestures. By practising such congruency, teachers show students what they want done and don’t have to say a word.

At the start of a new year or semester, teach students your gestures. Associate them with words for the first few weeks and soon students will know what you mean when you hold up a stop hand or when you fan your hands to show open your books. Gestures save your voice and lower exasperation levels.

Transition to independent work

Landry offers some NCI tips for managing students during the transition from teacher-centred to independent work and avoiding common interruptions such as what page, which questions, or why do we have to do this.

Use the sequence what, why, how to introduce all activities.

  • (What) Boys and girls, today in science we are going to …
  • (Why) We are going to do this to follow up on what we talked about yesterday …
  • (How) Now look here please (point to and look at the board, screen, flip chart) and we’ll read what you are going to do.

This last tool is called “visual exit directions.” Write clear and complete instructions on the board before the lesson. When the inevitable questions arise, avoid eye contact and say nothing. Instead, point to and look at your written instructions.

Through repetition, students will learn the routine and will eventually stop asking such questions.


Show and tell!

Latin and English teacher David Dewees shows and tells students that it’s time to open their books.

Follow visual exit directions with MITS – Most Important Twenty Seconds. Ask if there are any questions. If something is applicable to everyone, put it on the board. Then say something like, “I trust you can now get to work on your own and complete this task.”

Wait 20 seconds, silently. Stand still and watch your class. Use open body language: look around, keep your arms at your sides and align your hips and feet. Discourage talking; answer no questions. If students ask questions, do not make eye contact. Point to and look at the board or the textbook for answers.

Once again, you ensure congruency between your words and your actions. Used with visual exit instructions, MITS enhances the transition to independent learning by ensuring kinesthetics follow teachers’ instructions, not their body movements.

Teachers can also use MITS to give students thinking time before a class discussion. “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to think about this question before we talk about it. Write it down in your notebooks. Think about it for 20 seconds and then we’ll talk.”

While waiting, keep still and silent. If someone starts to speak, look quickly at the student, then look away and make a stop sign.

“Save eye contact for positive interactions, positive relationships.”

“Save eye contact for positive interactions, positive relationships,” Landry recommends. Avoid eye contact for negative interactions, when you don’t want to talk to students or when you don’t want to escalate something.

When a student interrupts you or a classmate or when a problem arises, use a visual sign like holding up a stop hand, and avoid eye contact. Use your eyes and look where you want your students to look.

When Susanna drops her book on the floor, look at her, say her name, then look at and point to the book. Don’t say anything else and avoid further eye contact.

When Vince creates a problem, call out his name and make a stop sign, but don’t look at him and don’t say a word. By not making eye contact you’re not allowing the problem to become personal.

Non-verbal intervention without eye contact will decrease unwanted behaviour and at the same time preserve the student-teacher relationship.

NCI encourages teachers to manage behaviour non-verbally so they can devote their energy to what they enjoy best: students, curriculum and instruction. While these strategies may sound easy, using them effectively and consistently requires practice and thought. However, this approach can help teachers improve how they manage their students and classrooms.


Eight minutes!

Media studies teacher Jennifer Buesink lets students know how much time remains.


Tried and true

The September 1986 issue of Phi Delta Kappan outlines some tested and true strategies that many teachers have no doubt been practising for years:

  1. Get everyone’s attention before starting your lesson.
  2. Begin each class by telling students what will happen and what they will do.
  3. Don’t stay at your desk. Circulate and monitor progress as students work.
  4. Remember that values are caught, not taught. Courteous, prompt, enthusiastic, in control, patient and organized teachers model ideal behaviours. “Do as I say, not as I do” teachers send mixed messages that confuse students and invite misbehaviour.
  5. Avoid confrontational escalation. Intervene or correct misbehaviour quietly, ideally inconspicuously or face-to-face with the offender. Do not distract or catch other students’ attention.
  6. Name offenders naturally as you teach. “And you see, Corey, this map of Africa shows …” Corey hears his name and gets back on task, and the intervention doesn’t interrupt others.
  7. Explain and enforce clear expectations consistently. Refer to your rules as expectations and tell students how you expect them to behave in your classroom. Use rules that describe the behaviours you want, not those things students cannot do.
  8. Avoid escalation by providing clear descriptions of what you want students to do. Focus students on the desired behaviour, not the misbehaviour. Say
  9. “I want” or “I need” or “I expect you to …”
  10. When you see good behaviour, acknowledge and praise it, both verbally and non-verbally. A nod, a smile or a thumbs-up reinforces behaviour and does not distract others.

For further information about NCI, visit and or contact Claudette Landry at

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