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Verbals Off, Learning On: Nonverbal Communication in the Classroom

Through nonverbal communication, I was slowly building a beautiful space with my students where we could learn and communicate with each other without saying a word.

Perspectives

As I sit here on another quiet weekday morning there is a deep feeling of something missing in my heart. I am entering the fifth week since the school closing due to Covid-19, and all I can think about is how I miss the classroom noise. I miss the tapping of dry erase markers on desks, the singing, the laughing, and even the yelling. I miss every word spoken over mine during instruction. I miss call and responses. I even miss the sound of the pencil sharpener. I had spent so much of the school year valuing those quiet moments that I didn’t realize how much I would give to hear my charmingly vocal students during this global crisis. During this quarantine, I can’t help but think about my students at home. Many live in abusive, loud and chaotic environments, and can’t wait until the day they can return to school for some peace. For this reason, I think it is important that when school is back in session we create an environment that is calm and peaceful. It will help the students get back into their routine and learn in a place of tranquility. One way I plan to do this is to continue using a technique I had been experimenting with prior to the pandemic, called nonverbal communication. Through nonverbal communication, I was slowly building a beautiful space with my students where we could learn and communicate with each other without saying a word.

My final day in the classroom before school closings were announced. A view of empty seats which used to be filled by my nonverbal champions. Hopeful for the day these seats will be filled again.
My final day in the classroom before school closings were announced. A view of empty seats which used to be filled by my nonverbal champions. Hopeful for the day these seats will be filled again.

To provide some background, I am a Special Education teacher at an alternative school. I teach a subject called Wheatley (reading and writing) to 4th through 6th grade for emotionally at risk students. I rotate to three different classrooms throughout the day and instruct for an hour at a time. My students come from home environments where they are exposed to an extensive amount of abuse and arguing within the family.  As a result, they feel more secure in loud environments because they’re used to the chaotic home settings and are often triggered by silence. Silence creates space in their minds that is typically occupied with noise, and brings uncomfortable thoughts and painful memories to surface. As a consequence, they exhibit struggles with volume control due to their discomfort in a quiet atmosphere. A crucial part of my job is to help my students feel more secure and comfortable in their own silence. I help them understand that they have the potential to learn in a safe environment that has no yelling or constant loud noises.  Communicating without words has been significantly helpful in building this sense of security because it reduces the need for me to raise my voice to get attention from my students, and reduces the need for them to raise their voices back.

Now I will go into detail about what nonverbal communication is, prior call and response development, and how I am using it in my lessons with my students. In brief definition, nonverbal communication is when you use “gestures and facial expressions that do not involve verbal communication” (2020). In other words, nonverbal communication is when you convey what you want to say without speaking. The idea of communicating without speaking in a classroom setting seems impossible, but believe it or not, I was able to accomplish this. A whole hour session of teaching nonverbally turned into days upon days at a time. Not only was I able to teach without speaking, but my students were able to learn without saying one word. Even my most vocal group of students were able to do this. I am at the point now, where I have established a vocabulary with my students they understand. When I give the instruction, “I am turning my verbals off, and so should you!”, that means they are to remain silent. When the instruction is given verbally, “Okay, turn your verbals on in five, four, three…”, this means they will be allowed to speak after the countdown has ended. How exactly do I remain consistent in “turning my verbals off” and making sure my students do the same? I rely heavily on visual cues and gestures such as pointing, tapping, and maintaining eye contact. Speechless yet? Well, so was I. Not to worry, in the following paragraph, I will tell you how I am  able to accomplish this with my students.

Prior to experimenting with nonverbal communication, I also experimented with various call and responses. According to Foster, call and responses are tools used in the classroom to gain the attention of the speaker and the listener, through both verbal and nonverbal communication (2002).  One call and response that I used frequently with my students is, “Hocus Pocus, everybody focus!” With the help of my super creative students, we had created our own spin on this call and response and changed it to “Hocus Pocus, Wheatley Focus!” In all three of my classrooms, once “Hocus Pocus, Wheatley Focus!” is initiated, my students know that it is time for the lesson to begin. Here’s an idea of how this call and response is used, and what a typical nonverbal lesson looks like in my classroom.

Nonverbal cue using the Hocus Pocus, Everybody Focus! call and response. My students and I love to experiment by changing the call and response according to the subject we are in. No matter what subject, the nonverbal cues are always the same: Tap (Hocus Pocus) and point (Science Focus!)!
Nonverbal cue using the Hocus Pocus, Everybody Focus! call and response. My students and I love to experiment by changing the call and response according to the subject we are in. No matter what subject, the nonverbal cues are always the same: Tap (Hocus Pocus) and point (Science Focus!)!

As soon as I walk into the classroom, I keep my “verbals” off and use visual cues and gestures to respond to any student comments, or convey anything that I want to say to them. I start each lesson by writing a “Do Now” activity on the board with the words, “Hocus Pocus, Wheatley Focus!” This is written right next to the “Do Now” prompt. Without saying a word, I tap loudly on the words “Hocus Pocus” and then point my marker to my students to signal that I want them to repeat “Wheatley Focus”. After several prompts with this, most if not all of my students look up at the board and are focused enough for me to give them instructions for their “Do Now” activity. While students are working on their “Do Now,” I maintain nonverbal communication by walking around the room to tap on desks for students who are off focus, maintain eye contact with each student I pass by, and give a “thumbs up” to praise those who are doing good work. Throughout the lesson, I use this kind of nonverbal communication and address everything from clarifying instructions, asking students if they need more time on a task, and addressing behaviors by writing prompts on the board and giving visual cues. At the end of the lesson, I remain silent and write “Hocus Pocus, Wheatley Focus!” on the board, and indicate to the class that I need their attention by tapping. Then, I write, “_____please pass out folders!” and “_____please collect pencils!” and tap or snap until the student that was called to do a task sees their name up on the board and follows the prompt. My students know at this point that when folders are passed out and pencils are collected, that Wheatley is over. Once all materials are collected, I write, “Great job, we made it to the end of the lesson using only nonverbals!” on the board and start clapping. Students then catch up and start clapping too, and the lesson is concluded on a silent and encouraging note.

Now of course, every day in the classroom is different. Most days, there are going to be more “verbals on” than “verbals off” during a lesson until it becomes routine. There have been some days where even my most successful class of nonverbal champions would have their verbals on for a whole entire lesson. I don’t let this disappoint me and I adjust accordingly when this occurs. There are a few strategies that I have found to be helpful in maintaining more successful nonverbal communication instruction. First, make it clear to students that they should not feel they are being restricted, and are never allowed to speak in the classroom. Instead, remind students that they are allowed to speak, but only if they follow certain norms. For example, I always set a ground rule that students are allowed to speak only if they raise their hand and ask an on-topic question, or make an on-topic comment. During a read aloud where verbals are required, I write on the board, “I am turning verbals on to read to you. Anyone who would like to read next, raise your hands and turn your verbals on. If you are not reading, your verbals are off.” This makes it clear to students that they are only to speak if they are the ones reading. Establishing this ground rule allows students to still be able to speak and ask questions as needed, but makes them more mindful of how they are using their verbals.

My dry erase markers getting a workout during Wheatley. Listed are detailed written instructions for what students need to do for this independent reading activity, as well as prompts for what to do if they need help.
My dry erase markers getting a workout during Wheatley. Listed are detailed written instructions for what students need to do for this independent reading activity, as well as prompts for what to do if they need help.

Second, make nonverbal prompts fun and engaging so that they will be more motivated to follow them. For example, what started as just tapping on the board with my marker to prompt students to “Wheatley Focus!” became a whole song and dance when I simply changed the tapping gesture to a beat and allowed students to stand up and dance to the beat with their verbals off. Third, write everything on the board. From prompts to focus, to instructions for independent activities, to prompts for students to pass out papers, etc. Yes, markers will run out a lot faster, but the students will rely on visuals on the board rather than verbal communication in order to work.

Why bother setting yet another classroom routine on top of all the other routines? Why wait for students to respond to prompts through tapping and gesturing when I can just call their name out? Why waste so much marker ink? I understand, truly. Establishing a routine of using nonverbal communication in the classroom takes a lot of effort, patience, and time. However, the benefits of taking time to turn verbals off significantly outweigh the benefits of keeping them on. One benefit of nonverbal communication is that it creates a sense of calm in the classroom. According to Bambaeeroo & Skokrpour, nonverbal communication in the classroom has proven to have “profound [affect] on the students’ mood” (2017). I have noticed in each classroom I teach that once everyone is settled in, and verbals are off, I see all students working quietly at their desk, even the students that are usually very vocal. Not only is there a “mood” shift in terms of getting work done, but also a shift in perspective of learning. This is because nonverbal communication is fun! Since I teach students who are a bit older, I often get quite a lot of pushback when it comes to more “silly” classroom management techniques. However, when I turn my verbals off and gesture for students to follow along with nonverbal prompts, even my older ones follow right along with smiles and excitement on their faces.

Another benefit of nonverbal communication is that it supports “team work, supportive, imaginative, purposive, and balanced communication” between students and teachers (Bombaeroo, 2017). My favorite nonverbal communication moments by far have been those where my students would use their imaginations and work together with me to establish different nonverbal cues. For example, I have quite a lot of students who struggle with impulse controls, frequently call outs and get out of their seats to get what they need. By modeling my own nonverbal cues, these students were able to come up with new ones raising their hands, making eye contact, pointing, tapping, and even coming up to the board to write what they want to say. By using these nonverbal cues, these students learn how to get what they want in an appropriate manner in the classroom.

In black is a nonverbal shout out for my nonverbal champions, who made it through a whole hour of instruction with their verbals off! In red is a note from a staff member who walked into the classroom and was so impressed that I did this, and amazed by the silence of the classroom, so he joined in on the nonverbal fun!
In black is a nonverbal shout out for my nonverbal champions, who made it through a whole hour of instruction with their verbals off! In red is a note from a staff member who walked into the classroom and was so impressed that I did this, and amazed by the silence of the classroom, so he joined in on the nonverbal fun!

Perhaps the most important benefits of all are the real life skills students can take from practicing nonverbal communication in the classroom. One skill that can be developed through nonverbal communication is positive self-expression. Students who would normally only know how to express themselves by raising their voices and yelling, can develop the skills to express themselves in a calmer manner. For example, I have a student who loves to help me redirect the class, but typically does so by raising his voice at peers. Through nonverbal practice,  I have seen this same student raise his hand to come up to the board, write “listen to Ms. Cohen” on the board, and point to the board to address his peers instead of yelling. This kind of positive expression not only helps with redirection in the classroom, but also helps students gain the ability to hold conversations at home and anywhere else. Another set of skills developed through nonverbal communication are focusing and listening. Nonverbal communication requires a lot of focus for students because they have to look around the room and listen for prompts instead of just being given a verbal prompt. Getting students into the routine of doing this will build the discipline they need to go out into the world and be more aware of their surroundings. It is said that “attention to non-verbal communication skills can make a positive change in the future of a student’s life” (2017). With the practice of volume control and focus, it becomes a norm in the classroom through nonverbal communication, and it will become a practice outside of the classroom as well.

I find it hard to express in words exactly how grateful I am that I was able to engage in nonverbal communication with my students prior to school closings. Five weeks ago, I walked into my classroom which would later be revealed as the last time for the school year. I looked around at empty chairs that were once filled with the sweet giggles of my nonverbal champions trying hard to keep their verbals off, and was flooded with memories of all the fun times we had using nonverbal communication. Without even saying a word, we created a calm, focused, and fun classroom environment and built a connection deeper than any verbals could convey.  Although the school year has been cut short, I think it is important for all of us as teachers and staff to enter into the next school year with practices of nonverbal communication to start the new year with calm and solace. I have done it, and it is possible for you, too. Verbals off, learning on.


Nonverbal communication. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/nonverbal-communication.

Bombaeroo, F., Shokrpour, N. (2017). The impact of teachers’ nonverbal communication on success in teaching. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5346168/.

Foster, M. (2002). Using Call-and-Response To Facilitate Language Mastery and Literacy Acquisition  among African American Students. Retrieved from https://www.ericdigests.org/2003-3/call.htm.

Hello, my name is Brittany Cohen. I am a Special Education Teacher at an alternative school in the Germantown area of Philadelphia. I teach reading and writing to emotionally at-risk youth. I have the most brilliant, silly, resilient students in the world, and I absolutely adore being a teacher. When I am not teaching, I spend my time writing poetry, playing music, performing at open mic nights, and engaging in mindfulness meditations.

: www.instagram.com/imafraidivecaughtpoetry/

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