Body language

Behaviour Management

Body language

a guide for classroom teachers and teacher aides

Small group of students using tablets during a lesson.

It is well-known that humans garner a large amount of information by consciously and subliminally observing and interpreting the body language of others. If you are not conscious of and manipulating your own body language, you are falling well short of maximising the influence of your behaviour management repertoire (and teaching in general). Body language can be thought of as the way in which you position your body (particularly your hands, arms, feet, legs and feet). It is not dissimilar to other languages such as English or Chinese: words are replaced by various combinations of body positions, stances, poses, gestures and movements, each with their own subtle meaning.

Figure of two people communicating.

Figure: Messages are constantly being sent, received, processed and responded to.

Your body language tells students a lot about you and your expectations.

Body language is used to send and receive messages. These messages contain an abundance of crucial information that we are wired to receive, process and respond to. These messages are ‘read’ in conjunction with facial expressions, vocalisations and sounds (such as breathing in loudly to indicate a sense of danger or a ‘close call’). We also use cues such as proximity, demeanour, physical appearance, clothing, smell and touch, as well as other less-controllable signals such as the perception of health and age.

We have all heard the saying, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. While excellent advice for children, humans actually do judge books by their covers, whether we like it or not. For example, what we wear signifies how seriously we take our work. A dishevelled outfit that needs ironing sends a clear message that the person wearing it is disorganised and unprofessional; unlikely to take their work seriously. This is why news reporters wear suits – it sends the message that they can be trusted. Regardless of what everyone else is wearing, your outfit should always be the right combination of professionalism and practicality (particularly when involved in physical activities, games and hands-on activities).

Hint: You probably don’t want to dress in corporate fashion, but certainly avoid anything that may be considered inappropriate (e.g. short skirts or visible underwear). This is particularly relevant for female staff working with teenage boys who have a disability or disorders such as autism. Schools consider this type of dress highly inappropriate and you will probably be sent home to change.

There is no doubt that we send messages using a variety of methods other than verbal language. These messages are projected into the world both purposefully as well as accidentally or unintentionally. Body language can therefore be purposefully used with specific intent. It’s a simple and effective behaviour management and engagement tool that should become part of your day-to-day practice whether teaching 4 year-olds or 44 year-olds.

Teachers can think about body language in 2 separate and distinguishable ways – what we communicate to students (sending messages) and what students communicate to us (receiving messages). Your body language tells students a lot about you and your expectations. It is a crucial factor used by students to determine your competence, confidence, wherewithal, organisation, professionalism and intelligence. Body language signals your attitude and demeanour – whether you are aggressive or calm, in control or anxious. This means that teachers should be conscious of the signals they are sending to their class. They can also choose to send certain messages for particular purposes (excitement, concentration, confidence or openness). Here are some simple examples of poses and stances and their applicability in a school environment:

  • Facing the class and speaking with open hands and palms indicates honesty and openness. This type of message may help to quell arguments and can be useful when speaking with upset students.
  • Covering and crossing any part of your body (e.g. hands in front of your face, legs crossed, arms crossed) gives the impression of hiding by creating a barrier between yourself and something fearful. You may want to avoid this particular habit.
  • Hands on hips or folded arms while directly facing a student (combined with a facial expression) clearly sends the message that you are not happy with their behaviour.
  • Clasping your hands behind your back indicates to students that you feel in control. People do this when they are reinforcing their authority and position of power (a General at a military parade for example). The sender is exposing several vulnerable parts of their body (mainly the neck, torso and groin) to communicate that they expect no need to use their hands for any form of defence. Teachers may use this from time to time to convey confidence.
  • Arms folded with one hand covering part of your face indicates a thinking and analytical state of mind. Often teachers will cover their mouths with a single finger – possibly tapping it every couple of seconds. This pose indicates that they are closely watching and analysing every move. It is a reconnaissance pose – they are waiting to pounce on any misdemeanour. The finger over the mouth indicates that they are not intending to engage in any conversation. Teachers can stand at particular points around the room (e.g. on the outskirts) and just watch – waiting and observing what students do – making eye contact from left to right but with little head movement. This is a common pose that teachers take after giving instructions as they wait for students to settle into a task.

Hint: Many of the strategies and tactics discussed above may not work with students with disabilities or disorders. If a student is visually impaired for example, hand signals may not be appropriate. Additionally, students with autism may not recognise subtle changes in your facial expression. What other strategies could be used instead?

Not only is body language used by teachers to communicate targeted messages to students, it is similarly used to interpret students’ current state of mind, intentions and to therefore predict, effect and control behaviour. For example, folding your arms indicates defensiveness (assuming you are not simply cold). Teachers can unwind a defensive posture and mindset by having students unfold their arms; ever hear a teacher say, ‘don’t fold your arms at me’ or ‘unfold your arms please’? While students have their arms folded they are not able to put pen to paper; this pose signifies that work has ceased.

If students are slumped in their chairs, their state of mind is probably more closely aligned with watching a movie than solving a complex maths problem. Tell them to ‘sit up straight, feet flat on the floor’ in order to change their psychological state. When students place their hands on their hips, they are said to be expanding their body size to convey a sense of physical prowess – a defensive and potentially offensive stance. Teachers can simply say ‘hands off hips please’ or ‘hands by your side’.

Best practice is to tell students what to do, instead of what not to do. For example, the teacher may say, ‘sit up straight, face the front’ instead of ‘don’t face the side, don’t slouch’. The latter (especially when working with students with additional needs) doesn’t provide clear instructions on what you want them to do. Don’t assume students will make the link between what they can’t do and what you expect them to do.

Hint: There is much more to learn about body language than what is outlined here. A worthwhile assignment is to read a book or 2 specifically on body language – the more you learn about body language the more effective your behaviour management skills will be.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Behaviour Management Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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