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Why use nonverbal cues? (classroom management)

Meredith // March 16th 2011 // 

This is a follow up post to last week’s “4 great nonverbal cues.” It dawned on me that while I was sharing applicable strategies, I didn’t expand very much on why nonverbal cues are so important and effective. Especially for new teachers or non-teachers, I thought a bit of an explanation would help before I send out more ideas.

The amazing thing about a nonverbal cue is that it is mutually beneficial, for students and teachers. They spare your voice and create a calmer classroom environment and they support children’s processing with visual cues.

Imagine a classroom where the children come in from recess and immediately engage in a wonderful, energetic conversation comparing Bumble Bee to Optimus Prime. This is lovely, but you only have 15 minutes for your guided reading segment, so this conversation must be redirected ASAP. You stand beside them saying “Stop talking. Be quiet.” Consequently, they speak louder, trying to drown out some annoying teacher sound like the in the Charlie Brown cartoon. This quickly becomes exhausting and is minimally effective.

Now, imagine the same scenario, where instead of saying anything, the you put up 5 fingers and stand in the middle of the room. As the children see you, they begin to silence one-by-one. Within a minute, the children are all looking at you quietly. It’s not magic; it’s human nature coupled with practice.

Visual cues tie abstract ideas like “quiet” with concepts in the physical world – this is why they’re particularly effective with young children who are still learning how to make connections between the physical and the abstract. Moreover, visual cues are more universal than spoken word. Think about a smiley face – wherever you are in the world, it most likely represents some interpretation of “happy.” The written word “happy” however, means nothing if you read Hànzì or Sanskrit. This may seem a bit off topic, but particularly in classes where children exhibit more disruptive behavior, they may in fact be struggling with cognitively shifting between behaviors or understanding auditory directions. Thus, visual cues may be super helpful! For more information on cognitive development and bridging the gap between abstract and concrete, take a look at Piaget’s Stages of Intellectual Development or his more extensive work in Mental Imagery in the Child; A Study of the Development of Imaginal Representation.

The real key to successful implementation of nonverbal cues in the classroom is setting clear expectations and practicing the procedure. Symbols like stop signs work, for example, because of a general cultural consensus on their meaning. They would not work if their meaning were contingent on literacy (having to read the word “stop” for instance) since not everyone is literate. The same principles apply to the classroom – you need to build a culture of understanding for what nonverbal cues mean and exactly how you expect children to react.

I have a few more nonverbal cues to share that I really love, so stay tuned!

*images courtesy of: (quiet), (stop), (hectic classroom)

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