[Updated for in-person learning] Ultimate Guide: 25 Non-Verbal Communication Tactics

Aug 19, 2020
Teaching Remotely

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Our most effective communication gets 3 things right: (1) the words we utter, (2) the way we modulate our voices to utter those words, and (3) the nonverbal cues we use to reinforce them. By ignoring any one of these, we short-change our ability to communicate ideas in an engaging, lasting way. Yikes! The good news is that there are proven strategies teachers can use to showcase their warm, engaging demeanors non-verbally. Below, I've curated a handy guide for teachers to try out these strategies with students. Enjoy!


Helpful Hand Gestures

Our hands can show enthusiasm, help communicate ideas more clearly, celebrate the hard work of students, and more. Here are 5 tips for how to use your hands as effective communication tools:


1. Use your hands to celebrate individual student wins

Try giving a student a "high five," "air five," elbow bump, fist bump, or sign-language applause the next time they exceed an academic or behavioral expectation. These emotional prizes are quick and free, but you know what they say: "the best things in life are free."

2. Create a whole group celebration

High fives and other gestures are an excellent 1:1 celebration, but they can also make for a full group party. The next time your class does something particularly awesome, celebrate with a "wave" or other creative whole-group dance move!

3. Conduct a lightning fast True/False poll or pacing survey

On the fly, you may need to adjust your pacing according to students' progress or poll students on true or false questions. Hand signals can be a great way to do either. Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down / Thumbs Even is a tried-and-true hand signal for polls. What creative hand signals do your students use in your classroom? The sky's the limit.

4. Demonstrate how you'd like students to organize their desks

You can move and arrange your hands to mimic the arrangement of various activities / devices / papers on students' desks. For example, you may want each student to have their chromebooks on one part of their desks... with notebooks on another.

5. Chunk multi-step instructions physically with your hands

When you're walking students through a multi-step process, such as their instructions for a group activity, you can use your hands to help physically break apart the instructions into bite-sized chunks.


Eye On The Prize & Facial Expressions

Perhaps the eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Our eyes hold immense power to showcase our emotions, our enthusiasm, and our commitment to our students. Here are 4 ways to communicate nonverbally with our eyes:


1. Widen your eyes for emphasis, but sparingly

Having your eyes wide open shows you are singularly focused on your key point. While you certainly don't want to spend the entirety of your lesson plan with your eyes shockingly ajar, it doesn't hurt to strategically place a few moments throughout your lesson in which you're doing your very best Bambi impression.

2. Side-eye isn't always shady

You can look sideways at the speaker / student from time to time. When looking from the side, raise your eyebrows to communicate that you're listening and interested. Something primal in our brains recognizes the combination of tilting your ear toward the speaker and raising your eyebrows as a signal that you're an active listener. But be careful with this strategy... if you look sideways without raising your eyebrows, you can accidentally communicate that you either don't trust the speaker or that you are intensely irritated by them. This expression is what is affectionately dubbed "side-eye." The eyebrows make a huge difference!

3. Make friendly, direct eye contact as much as possible

My parents' admonishments about making direct eye contact when I was a youngster have never been more useful than they were in the classroom. Eye contact communicates trust, respect, and solidarity between people, yet it can be easy to forget this when working with young people. This is so important! However, simply glaring into a student's eyes is probably not the way to go. Pair this tried-and-true eye contact habit with tactic #4 below for a more warm approach.

TEACHER NOTE: be sure to research and maintain cultural responsiveness (and responsiveness to students' needs) with regard to eye contact with your students. For example, direct eye contact is not a sign of respect between a student and teacher in all cultures, and can make people on the autism spectrum uncomfortable.

4. Ye Olde Nod-And-Look

This one's an oldie but goodie used by everyone from restaurant servers (nodding as they ask, "would you like fries with that?") to Fortune 500 CEOs. Try nodding while making a key point the next time you're teaching.

When the speaker is nodding, their head movement quite directly impacts whether or not the listener believes the speaker is telling the truth. When combined with direct eye contact from Tactic 3 above, nodding as you speak conveys your authority and leadership. It's also a simple way to show students you're listening actively when they're speaking!


Proximity & Posture

Body language is crucial for effective leadership and communication when meeting face-to-face, and it's equally important on your video calls! Here are 5 tips (plus a BONUS) you can use tomorrow to leverage your screen space and physical presence effectively during your next video lesson, either synchronous OR asynchronous:


1. A straight back will take you straight forward

More admonitions here from my mother about my slouching posture at my childhood kitchen table... I can still hear them to this day. Sitting or standing straight with your shoulders held proud is perhaps the quickest way to convey confidence, calm, and clarity, even if internally we feel anxious or insecure.

2. Lean forward (slightly) to emphasize key points

This is one time where you can let your straight posture lapse. You can lean a few inches forward to really hammer home a key instruction or idea for your students.

3. Lean back when outlining a big-picture idea

This tactic pairs beautifully with tactic 5 from the "Helpful Hand Gestures" segment above. When referencing a big picture idea - or a set of instructions with multiple steps - you can lean back as you gesticulate. This makes room for hand gestures, and signifies imagination. But don't take it from me - Spongebob Squarepants had this idea back in 1998.

4. Utilize lateral movement

One of the easiest ways to signify that there are multiple perspectives about an idea (or multiple steps in a process) is to shift your placement in the room, shuffling slightly from your right to your left in your classroom. Combine this with Tactic 4 from the first section of this post (Helpful Hand Gestures) for an added benefit.

5. Proximity can be more effective than volume.

You've likely had to redirect a student whose behavior was off-track at some point in your teaching career. This can be uncomfortable and unfortunate because teachers don't become teachers to admonish young people. Yet at the same time, students thrive when they experience clarity in expectations and accountability for their actions. What we often forget is that verbally singling students out can contribute to a lack of trust over time.  One way to hold students accountable to your high expectations subtly is actually proximity. Placing yourself near a student's desk, perhaps with a quick tap of your fingers on their table, can often redirect the disruption, and call very little attention to you or the student. Even better, this quick-redirect strategy helps build trust over time, since you haven't singled them out in front of their peers. Give it a shot! 

6. BONUS: "Raise The Roof" Celebration!

Place your hands high, parallel to the floor, as if they were pressed onto the ceiling. Then, simultaneously push up with your shoulders and sink down with your head and neck to create an instant "raise the roof" effect! For extra roof-raising, teach your students the move!


Tech That Enables Non-Verbal Communication

In addition to the physical tactics outlined above, you can also enable great non-verbal communication through technology. This section, featuring 3 helpful non-verbal communication technology tips, will be especially handy for educators whose students are not permitted to enable their webcams for security/privacy reasons. But it's also good stuff for any teacher facing the challenge of teaching remotely!


1. Try out a noise monitor that automatically warns you when it's getting too loud in the classroom

One of my favorite websites is bouncyballs.org. As long as you have a microphone on your device, and your district's web filter allows the site, you can use it to monitor and manage the noise level in the classroom. You can even program the website's settings so that if noise reaches a certain level, the site will issue a calming, "Shhhhhh." This is perfect for group or partner activities in which students should be collaborating but not shouting or getting rowdy.

NOTE: You may have to go through your district's IT Admin or GSuite Admin in order to use this web app.

2. Try classroom economies that virtually reward students for various behaviors

ClassDojo was one of the original apps for positive behavior management whereby students would get satisfying rewards for participating in class, encouraging classmates, helping fellow students, and more. There are a bunch of great (both free and paid) classroom economy websites and apps out there which are more personal finance oriented. These reward students with "paychecks" and "bonuses" they can use to simulate banking habits, renting their desks, investing in the market, and all kinds of personal finance skills. 

3. Randomize with tools like PickerWheel

Communication - both verbal and non-verbal - is most successful when the participants trust one another. Of course, "Randomizers" have many applications in the classroom, but their central value to nonverbal communication is the sense of trust they build.

A few popular examples of "Randomizers" are:

  • PickerWheel
  • Excel & Google Sheets' RAND( ) function, and
  • TeamShake
  • WheelOfNames

You can use these tools to ensure your cold call selections are truly random and without bias. You can use them to shuffle the roles that individual students play in small group work. You can even use them to game-ify your classroom activities. All of these applications take the pressure off educators to be the perfect CDMOs (Chief Decision Making Officers) for the class all the time.


Your Classroom Is Your Canvas

Surely, the Mona Lisa would still be enigmatic and striking without her pastoral background scenery, but the background also lends her character a sense of time, place, depth, and circumstance. In fact, the background helps define the viewer's perception of the Mona Lisa's very identity. The background of this painting has even been the basis of several conspiracy theories about her!

In this cursory analogy, of course, you are the Mona Lisa. It's impossible to overstate the value of your classroom as a non-verbal communication tool. Just like the Mona Lisa, your surroundings contribute to your students' perceptions of you.

Here are 5 more tips to help you use your classroom itself as an effective non-verbal communication tool.

1. Use your board to reinforce expectations publicly

Voice levels... key rules & norms... even your student group sizes for the next activity... you can use your whiteboard to communicate and repeat these expectations non-verbally. This ensures students always know what to be doing, seeing, and saying, with minimal disruption to the class if they get lost. Here's a customizable template you can use to design your own board with key rules and procedures. You can also use poster paper or physical printouts to reinforce norms and expectations. Go wild with it!

2. Showcase your... you!

Do you have an interest outside of teaching about which you're passionate? Share it publicly to reinforce the trust you'd like to build with your students. Even better - have your students join in to share their interests!

The possibilities are really endless here. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • A hobby you're nerdy about
  • A trip you loved
  • A sport you play or cheer on
  • Your favorite author(s)
  • A historical or present-day figure who inspires you
  • Your favorite quote

3. Rep your school spirit, community motto, or class goal!

One simple idea is to use your classroom as as a showcase for school spirit. Perhaps you've got a motto, a logo, and/or a school theme for the school year. Perhaps you have a class-wide goal you'd like to post for your students as their north star. Your board, and the walls around it, can be the perfect place for this!

4. Give your classroom a timely academic theme

Learning environments that reflect the content area are no longer just the stuff of history teachers. Financial educators have a unique opportunity to add content area themes to their classrooms. This tactic anchors your class in the learning objectives and essential questions of the each unit, giving crucial continuity to students - nice!

Here are a few thematic ideas to get you started:

  • Create 2 or 3 Essential Questions for the Budgeting Unit, and overlay them on a pie chart of the 50/30/20 model
  • Find a stock image (see what I did there?) of a Bull squaring off against a Bear. Trace this in dry-erase marker on your board, and boom! You've got an eye-catching stock market theme.
  • Find a map showing the prevalence of payday loan shops in counties throughout the U.S. Display this during your Financial Pitfalls unit.

5. Teach like a painter

Ambient color affects how people think and behave. Take advantage of this as you design your classroom for various learning activities.

Here are a few color psychology ideas to get you started:

  • As your students head off for an independent activity, change your slide deck to a mellow blue or light grey hue to communicate calm and simplicity.
  • When your students are sharing out loud with the class, change your slide deck to a bright orange or yellow to encourage confidence, bravery, and cheer.
  • When you're conducting a "get-to-know-you" activity, add pops of color from throughout the color spectrum to communicate that your class values each student's unique perspective. Think of the multi-color Google or NBC Logo for inspiration.

Here's a full rundown (Credit: Huffington Post) of the various emotions that different colors inspire in brand logos:



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About the Author

Christian Sherrill

Christian comes to NGPF from the world of classroom instruction, where he was a teacher for three years at a public middle school in El Sobrante, California. After leaving the classroom, he joined math tutoring company, Zeal Learning, to help grow their educator-facing sales and marketing efforts. He's no stranger to making a dollar stretch - while living in the Bay Area on his teacher salary he paid down over $40k in student loans in the span of 3 years. He's thrilled to share those lessons with teachers and students around the U.S.