Understanding Nonverbal Behaviors In the Classroom

Whether you are aware of it or not, your nonverbal behavior impacts those around you. It plays a crucial role in communicating, establishing trusting relationships, and creating a welcoming environment. This is especially true for teacher-student interactions. 

Studies show nonverbal behaviors can improve class relations and provide students with invaluable communication skills. What are your students’ nonverbal behaviors telling you? What are your nonverbal behaviors telling them? 

In this article, we will explain what nonverbal behavior is and how it can help make you a more effective educator. 

What Are Nonverbal Behaviors?

The definition of nonverbal behavior is any unspoken communication or behavior. This includes things like eye contact, posture, physical contact, and facial expressions. Sometimes these signals are so subtle they are only recognized on a subconscious level. 

Recognizing Nonverbal Behaviors

Chances are you already recognize nonverbal cues and use them to shape your interactions with students. You’ve probably experienced something along the following lines: 

One of your students always comes to class with a huge smile on her face. Today, however, she comes in and quietly sits down with her arms crossed and her brow furrowed.

In this example, your student is displaying several nonverbal behaviors. It is her nonverbal behaviors that are telling you something is wrong. 

Nonverbal Behaviors in Kids 

Kids display a wide array of nonverbal behaviors that mean different things. Observing these cues can tell you when your students are experiencing a state of distress. This state is often caused by anger, fear, confusion, sadness, embarrassment, or guilt.  

Keep your eyes out for these nonverbal cues: 

  • Disassociating from the group
  • Refusing to communicate
  • Damaging property or possessions
  • Closed body posture
  • Responding to questions with shrugs
  • Refusing eye contact
  • Pushing or expressing violence
  • Crying
  • Trembling

 Any nonverbal behavior that indicates a state of distress should be approached with caution. Start by pulling the student aside and having a quiet talk to try to get to the source of the behavior. Showing empathy, patience, and calm will help them feel safe and validated.  

Nonverbal Behavior Examples

Identifying the emotional state of your students based on their nonverbal behaviors is only the first step. You must also be aware of your nonverbal behavior and how it impacts classroom dynamics. 

Making Eye Contact

Making eye contact is the easiest way to show you are engaged and interested. It validates your students by making them feel seen, heard, and respected. Eye contact is also an excellent tool for keeping students on task. 

When giving instructions or a lesson, take time to scan the room and make eye contact with your students. This simple glance attracts their attention and provides a moment of connection that makes them feel included.

You can also use eye contact to stop undesired behaviors. Giving students “the look” is an effective way to communicate that what they are doing is not ok and needs to stop.

Eye contact tells you a lot about your students’ personalities and dispositions. When combined with other nonverbal cues, it indicates shyness, boredom, guilt, disengagement, confusion, and even sadness or anger.  

Body Posture 

Which teacher are you most likely to pay attention to?

Teacher A walks to the front of the class with slumped shoulders and keeps their back to the room for the entire lesson. Teacher B has a spring in their step as they walk to the front and keeps their body open to face the room while lecturing. 

If you’re like most people, you answered, “Teacher B.” Why? Because their posture is more inclusive and engaging. 

Your body posture often tells your students a lot more about your sentiments than your words. If your body says you’re not excited about the material, then no amount of verbal excitement will convince them otherwise. More importantly, if you’re not excited, why should they be?  

Meanwhile, your students’ postures show their level of engagement. If the majority of the class is slouched in their chairs or falling asleep every time you lecture, it might be time to reassess your lesson plans


Although this is a type of vocal communication, it does not involve the use of actual language. It includes things like tone, intonation, inflection, and volume. This is one of the most impactful forms of nonverbal communication. 

A simple change in your tone or inflection can severely alter the meaning behind your words and the way they are received. In addition, your students’ paralinguistics often provide glimpses of their emotional well-being. Take this knowledge into your interactions, offering empathy, support, and guidance as necessary. 

Facial Expressions

Have you ever thought about making facial expressions a part of your lesson plan? According to research, teachers who utilize facial expressions see increased student retention, comprehension, and engagement. Not only does this nonverbal behavior capture the students’ attention, but it encourages connection. 

Teachers should use their students’ facial expressions to gauge understanding. Frowns, glazed eyes, and pouts are clear indicators of confusion. If you see these expressions in your class, take a moment to check in and reiterate any difficult material. 


When used appropriately, touch is a very effective form of nonverbal communication. A gentle touch on the shoulder can bring a student’s attention back to the task at hand.

Then there are hugs. Hugs are often sought out by students experiencing moments of stress, frustration, or overwhelm. 

It’s important to understand the subtleties of nonverbal behaviors when working with kids, especially those with special needs. Many children respond adversely to physical contact.

One of the best things you can do for your school is start using legally-defensible behavior intervention plans. Explore our website to find out how Insights to Behavior can help you create one in less than an hour. 

Change Your Classroom With Nonverbal Behavior

There are so many benefits to recognizing and utilizing nonverbal behavior in your class. It will not only help you with classroom management but also in fostering positive relationships with your students. 

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