Body Language in the Classroom: Its Role in Classroom Management and Student Achievement
Educators wear many hats on a daily basis. You’re a teacher, cheerleader, shoulder to cry on, soother of bumps and bruises (literal and figurative), coach, comedian, and so much more.
You’re also a public speaker. And as any effective public speaker knows, your body language plays a major role in how your message is received and remembered. Posture, hand gestures, facial expressions, and even tone of voice impact learning more than we often realize.
In fact, body language registers in the human brain almost immediately, even when we aren’t consciously aware of it.
Your body language enhances some of your other roles in the classroom too. It can convey trust and safety, warmth and connection. Paying attention to the body language of your students provides you with important information, allowing you to be a responsive teacher who can adjust lessons on the spot.
Here’s how you can use body language to enhance your effectiveness in the classroom.
Body Language to Engage
If you’re excited about what you’re teaching, students will be too. Animated facial expressions, varied tone of voice, and the use of hand gestures conveys enthusiasm and makes your lessons more engaging.
Psychology professor Stephen Ceci experimented with how body language impacted his student evaluations. He scripted one of his courses so the verbal content between classes was identical.
In one class, he used standard or “boring” body language. In another class, he varied his voice tone and emphasized his points with facial expressions and hand movements.
The results? At the end of the school year, Ceci received higher ratings from the students in the expressive class in every single area.
Using expressive body language engages students and makes you and your lessons more memorable.
Body Language to Connect
Experts advise using “open” body language to connect with students. Crossing your arms, for example, appears guarded and closed off. Similarly, avoid standing behind a desk or other barriers. This signals that you don’t want to make contact.
Relax your arms, smile, and make eye contact to send the message, “I care!” Show interest in your students by nodding and leaning slightly forward when they speak. Circulate the classroom, providing encouragement and answering questions.
Throughout the day, try to stay aware of your facial expressions. Regardless of the words you say, your face sometimes conveys emotions you’d rather keep to yourself.
If you start feeling frustrated or distracted, take a few deep breaths and smile. The act of smiling releases dopamine and serotonin. It increases feelings of happiness and decreases feelings of stress, leaving you more open to connection (and more likely to convey that message to your students).
Body Language to Boost Confidence
All teachers want to educate and lead with confidence. A confident teacher is a teacher that students can trust to guide them in the right direction.
Standing up straight conveys confidence to your students and helps you feel more confident. Research in Health Psychology showed that participants who sat up straight during a mock interview reported higher self-esteem and a better mood than their slouched peers.
The great-posture participants described their mood as “enthusiastic,” “excited,” and “strong.” Their poor-posture counterparts used descriptors like “passive,” “dull,” “sluggish,” “nervous,” and even “hostile.”
Another practice related to posture is called fronting. Fronting means aiming your torso and toes toward the person (or in this case, people) that you’re speaking to. This helps you look confident, charismatic, and focused.
Finally, convey confidence through your tone of voice. Speak clearly, calmly, and at a reasonably slow pace. Use an upbeat tone that conveys enthusiasm for the subject you’re teaching.
When you look and feel confident, you’ll speak, teach, and lead more effectively. As a result, your students will learn more.
Body Language to Explain
Generally, retention rates for verbal material is very low. Children—especially young children—need visuals.
We often use pictures to communicate information visually, but we can also use body language. When possible, use your hands or body to illustrate points and provide visual explanations.
You can even engage a student or two in a visual demonstration. For example, students can represent parts of a cell, steps in the writing process, or numbers in a math equation. Get creative! Visual explanations are both engaging and memorable for your students.
Body Language to Communicate
We can’t always stop a lesson to communicate with students. This is another way that body language is helpful in the classroom.
If you’re an experienced teacher, you’re probably practiced in the art of communicating through nods, hand gestures, and eye contact. You may have a class-wide signal for quiet, like raising your hand.
But there are even subtler ways that body language can help encourage responses from students. For example, a hand on your chin indicates that you’re waiting for an answer. It encourages students to take a second to brainstorm.
According to the National Education Association (NEA), holding your hands out with palms up communicates that you’re open to questions. It also shows you will answer them in an encouraging and nonthreatening manner.
While waiting for student responses, avoid staring, tapping your foot, or otherwise rushing them. Adopt a relaxed, yet attentive posture.
Body Language to Manage the Classroom
Proximity is a powerful classroom management tool. If you sense that a student is disengaged, move closer to the student.
Often, your proximity signals to the student that it’s time to return to the task at hand. If the student is disengaged because they don’t understand the material, you can provide the help they need to get back on track.
Body language provides subtle methods for managing your classroom without disrupting your lesson or making a student feel “called out” in front of the class.
Reading Students’ Body Language
Your body language in the classroom is important. However, it’s equally important to be aware of your students’ body language.
Are they looking at you and occasionally nodding their heads? Or are they shifting in their seats and gazing around the room?
When you notice that students are inattentive, adjust accordingly. Incorporate movement or music. Get the students to turn to a partner and discuss what they’re learning about. Tell a joke or a relevant anecdote.
Body language can also help you recognize that a student is feeling stressed, tired, or upset. Use this knowledge to understand which students may need some extra help, encouragement, or patience.
Body language is an often-overlooked component of effective teaching. Notice your posture, tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Use them to increase engagement, connection and confidence, to foster communication and provide explanations, and to manage your classroom.
Stand up straighter to feel more confident, and smile to feel more cheerful and less stressed.
While you’re at it, observe the body language of your students too. Notice their level of attention and energy, as well as how they’re feeling throughout the day.
By paying attention to these subtle cues, you’ll increase your effectiveness and improve student outcomes.