Words are powerful; they have the ability to lift up the lowest of the low or tear down the highest of the high. But a strong argument could be made that our body language is even more influential. Mixed with our words, they have the ability to enhance our message or confuse (or even shut down) our audience. The most effective communication occurs when the importance of body language in teaching is acknowledged. When these nonverbal cues are in sync with our verbal ones, it creates communication synergy.
“Your body communicates as well as your mouth. Don’t contradict yourself.” -Allen Ruddock
It has been suggested that two-thirds of our communication is nonverbal. Between head nods, smiles, frowns, closed postures, head tilts, raised hands and excited pacing, teachers, and students send hundreds of non-verbal cues to one another daily. Positive body language in a classroom setting has the ability to motivate, inspire and engage. It can not only give you the confidence you need to teach but can also reassure your students that you actually know what you’re talking about. It can even make your students feel safe and confident enough to participate in the lessons more frequently.
Most leadership positions encourage body language that exudes power and confidence. Cues include standing tall, gesturing only from the waist up, keeping palms down and head straight and forward, and speaking with control. Think about a politician delivering an election speech.
But when teaching, the nonverbal cues need to communicate a different type of leader. These cues convey warmth and empathy, reminding your students that you are approachable and there to help them grow.
Below are 6 ways to use these cues to empower and engage your students.
1. Eye Contact
One of the best ways to connect with our students and keep their focus. Hold your gaze with one student for about 15-30 seconds before changing to another student. Your students are likely to pay more attention when they know you’re speaking directly to them. It also helps them feel seen.
2. Be Expressive and Use Gestures
Inspire students to become involved with the lesson. Hook their brains. Retention rates are low on verbal material but increase when you add in memorable nonverbal cues for the brain to file away as an association.
3. Keep Your Arms Open
An open body position signals an invitation. It welcomes brainstorming and new ideas. It also draws your students’ attention to you and thus they will be more likely to hear what you have to say.
4. Praise with Your Whole Body
Nod your head. Give a thumbs up–maybe two! Raise your hands in excitement. Show them they are on the right path and they will be more confident in continuing down it.
5. Adopt a Thinking Pose
Hold your chin, tilt your head. This will signal to the student you are looking at to ponder the question. It inspires curiosity.
This is the most important. Students connect best with teachers who want to be present with them, who love learning and want to share that passion.
Being more mindful of nonverbal communication in the classroom will allow us to become effective communicators of knowledge. In addition, we will become skilled receivers of our students’ needs, gain the power to send signals that reinforce learning, and open our eyes to signals that stifle it.
Brittany Williamson is a Mental Health Counselor at Florida Children’s Institute based in Jacksonville, Florida. She works closely with children and their families taking a Cognitive-Behavioral approach and is passionate about building emotional intelligence and teaching coping skills that will promote resilience throughout her client’s lives. She is also a certified yoga instructor who uses that knowledge to treat anxiety and depression and to model self-care within her practice. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, staying active, traveling, and spending time with her family and beloved yellow Lab, Reagan.