6.3 Using body language: Advice for teachers

On this page

introduction video

  1. Importance of using body language
    1.1 Conscious use of body language
    1.2 Using body language in an unconscious way
    1.3 Verbal warnings as a mean to change behaviour
    1.4 Starting consciously using body language
  2. Nonverbal directions replace verbal directions
    2.1 Exceptions where you do give verbal cues
  3. Designing gestures in consultation with students
  4. Asking for attention to the whole group with body language
  5. Body language does not suit me
    5.1 Persuasion
  6. Gestures and special needs students
  7. Multiple options for giving non-verbal cues
    7.1 Giving directions with an image
    7.2 Giving directions with a sound
  8. Summary
  9. Video
  10. Credits

By using body language, teachers create a positive learning environment. This costs them little energy and ensures that their classes run smoothly.

Body language helps me to teach friendly and fair. When I explain something verbally, I use body language to inaudibly give my students directions or to inaudibly ask a student to stop disrupting the lesson. Meanwhile, I continue my explanation. My students pay attention to both my body language and the verbal part of my instruction: I speak two languages synchronously:

  1. Verbally I explain a subject.
  2. With body language I give my students directions and reinforce positive behaviour.

Current approach:

How do I use body language when teaching?

Future Approach:

How will I use body language the future when teaching.

Introduction video

For more information check out our other introductory videos here.


On this page we provide general information to body language. Body language helps you to focus fully on your verbal explanation.

On this site there are three other pages where we pay attention to body language:

  1. Read more about ‘Communicating through gestures‘. This is one of the modules of the perspective ‘Establishing a friendly tone’.
  2. Read more about how to use body language as a first step of ‘Reinforcing positive behaviour: first steps’. With this first step you ask a student non-verbal to stop disrupting the lesson.
  3. All gestures filmed and commented at ‘Using gestures

A few statements regarding body language underlying this chapter

  • We tend to copy each other’s body language. You can make use of this tendency when teaching: If you teach in a calm manner, your students will naturally adopt your calmness. If a group is too passive you show more energy, hoping to make the group active (Managing emotions).
    Avoid these forms of taking over body language: You teach restlessly and your students take over your restlessness, or the students are restless, you take over their restlessness.
  • Gestures lend themselves well to giving directions. Gestures are inaudible, unambiguous and do not disrupt the lesson.
  • You can give nonverbal directions in several ways: it can be done with gestures, you also give a signal with your position in the classroom. You also can give directions with pictures with instructions such as the expectation management folder or the abacus.
    Another option is to use a sound such as a bell (See below ‘multiple options for giving nonverbal directions’).
  • As you get to work with body language, you discover new ways to give nonverbal cues all the time, and you turn out to be able to ask students something nonverbally in multiple ways.
  • The more verbal cues you replace with nonverbal cues, the less you talk and the easier students will understand what you say.

Why would a student respond to a gesture?

If students knows how you reinforce positive behaviour they get used to responding to your use of body language.

If you start with a group where everyone is talking interchangeably, it does not mean that the group does not want to start. It is too early to assume that students don’t want to listen to you. The way you ask for attention sets the mood. If you use the ‘Lighthouse gesture’ (or any other gesture that asks for silence) and your students get used to it, then the lesson will begin quietly and with concentration (See ‘Communicating through gestures’)
If a student disrupts the lesson (consciously or unconsciously) and does not respond to a gesture you use to stop this disruption (Using body language), you then give this student a Tip and then, if necessary, a Future behaviour letter. This assignment is effective because students do not want to lose free time. As a result your gestures also are effective.

When working with body language the following questions come up

  1. How do I come across as a teacher and do I want to come across that way?
  2. What do students pay attention to when they look at me?
  3. How do I give directions with body language?
  4. Can I address disruptive behaviour with body language?

The images we use below are part of the overview.

Communication through gestures

Figure 18: role model (overview)

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Using body language

Figure 8: Using body language (overview)

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1. Importance of using body language

Whether someone is consciously expressing something with body language or whether someone is not doing so at all, there is always something to note about body language.

1.1 Conscious use of body language

Giving inaudible directions is part of every lesson. Benevolent students are given inaudible directions with body language and a student who disrupts the lesson is addressed inaudibly with body language. Below you find a description of multiple options for nonverbal directions.

1.2 Using body language in an unconscious way

What happens when you are not aware of your body language?

You can try to ignore a student who is interrupting. Students now probably see that you are bothered but that you are not doing anything. When you warn a student (verbally), then everyone hears that you are bothered. By the irritation in your voice, you (unconsciously) influence the atmosphere in a negative way. Moreover, giving a warning makes you lose the thread of your story. and lose concentration.

If you verbally direct a student to a disturbance you interrupt your “flow” of the lesson. Your students and also you focus on the disruption. Moreover, when you ignore a disruption, students get the impression that it is okay. By ignoring the disruption, you encourage disruptions rather than making them stop.

1.3 Verbal warnings as a mean to change behaviour

Any verbal warning expressed with emphasis, whether you give it during whole class teaching or when students are working independently has great influence. Far greater than you might realize. Imagine: all your students are (more or less intensely and seriously) engaged in their own learning process and have their attention and concentration there. Now you, audibly (though not immediately understood and understood by everyone) give a verbal warning. Then, of necessity, all students must take their attention away from their learning work; you demand their attention. After all, they are supposed to listen to you. So they all have to figure out your message, just to know if that message was meant for them too. Then, when they understand that the message was only for another student, they all have to find their way back to what they were doing in reverse and rebuild their concentration. Added up, you now have a lot of time and attention gone.

1.4 Starting consciously using body language

When you start using body language, the advice of FFT is: first give a compliment with a thumbs up gesture. Other gestures such as asking for attention (Lighthouse gesture) we elaborate below.

2. Nonverbal directions replace verbal directions

Body language

Verbal professional explanation, explaining a subject matter, cannot be replaced by body language.

What can be replaced with body language are friendly verbal instructions (such as, sit down, you may begin etc) and verbal warnings (such as stop with this behaviour). If you omit these two verbal aspects, you disrupt your explanation of a subject matter as little as possible.

With body language you give well-intentioned students simple inaudible directions and instructions. You also ask inaudible a student to stop disturbing.

Gestures and body language are not only functional for you, your students can also benefit from using gestures among themselves. Therefore, pass on to your students the body language that you yourself use to communicate with your students. If your students adopt elements of your way of using body language when tasked to work together, their cooperation improves. If you are whole class teaching and then have your students do a short exercise, consider encouraging your students to give each other directions using body language and to direct each other on disruptive behaviour.

By regularly alternating the leadership role when working in groups, it is easier for group members to accept each other’s temporary leadership. For students, gestures make the step to leading a group smaller and come in handy for role reversal and collaboration.

Benefits of body language

The great advantage of giving instructions with body language and reinforcing positive behaviour with body language is that you don’t hear it.

With audible instructions and directions this advantage is gone as shown in this example from an instructional book for teachers. According to (Slooter) 2019 you resolve a disruption verbally by:

The three-way rule

  1. Naming the observable, undesirable behaviour (“I see/hear that you…”)
  2. Naming the rule (“The rule is…”)
  3. Naming the desired behaviour (“I want you to stop.”).
    so much for the quote.

As correct as all of this is, the students hear a whiner/coercive. You replace all this with an inaudible series of gestures with which you reinforce positive behaviour:

Attention, quiet, if the student stops talking you give a compliment. If the student does not do what you ask, you give a Tip

Attention, stop, if the student stops the disruptive action, you compliment. If the student does not do what you ask, you give a Tip.

For a student it is more pleasant to react on inaudible gestures then to react on verbal warnings. If your gestures look friendly then your actions are accepted by students, they prefer to be directed non-verbally, rather than verbally. A student with poor impulse control who is called by name and warned by teachers in every lesson becomes allergic to this or seeks negative attention from the teacher.

Other options

See also multiple options for giving nonverbal directions

2.1 Exceptions where you do give verbal directions

  1. If you are ready at the door to greet your students and you see a student coming toward your classroom very busy, you ask this student (verbally) to wait outside the classroom for a moment until everyone is inside. When everyone is seated and quietly preparing for class, ask the student waiting outside to come in. As this student walks into the classroom, this student looks around in surprise and thinks “How quiet it is in here” and then sits down quietly.
  2. When changing the approach to teaching, use a verbal cue combined with a gesture as shown in this video to make the change quickly.

When student are working independently and you want them to change to whole class teaching, you use both body language and verbal cues for maximum clarity. In this video a teacher asks students working independently to clean up and sit in the circle.

If you only make a gesture to change the approach to teaching, then by no means all students immediately notice that you are making a gesture. It then takes to long for everyone to understand what you want.

3. Designing gestures in consultation with students

If students indicate that a particular gesture “doesn’t work”, involve them in the design of that particular gesture. This way you preserve the valuable function of the gesture. you then change the form of the gesture together with the students. By involving students in the design of a gesture, you make them owners of this gesture in terms of design.

How do you involve students shaping gestures?

This example was put into practice by Freddie Hooijer – English teacher:

Teacher: “Boys and girls, I heard in the teachers’ room that Mr. ‘t Hart’s silence gesture does not work. Is that true”?

Students: “Yes sir.”
Teacher: “Then I would now like a suggestion from you for another silence gesture. Which of you would like to invent a new gesture”?

A student hesitantly shows a new gesture.

Teacher: Ok, then let’s try that now: Please all talk through each other.

Students talk through each other. Teacher makes the gesture and immediately there is silence.

Teacher: “OK, then we’ll use this gesture from now on.”

This approach by Freddie shows that gestures in general and also the gestures of Friendly and Fair Teaching can be changed. If you compare different sign languages you notice they are different in every country. Therefore, feel free to perform the gestures on this site differently. Once your students know a gesture and it’s meaning, this gesture becoms part of the lessons from now on.

4. Asking for attention to the whole group with body language

Your explanation will come across better if your students are listening attentively. How do you ask for attention? First you use the ‘lighthouse gesture’ (or a self-chosen gesture). The lighthouse gesture includes a timer. For a busy class, you make the gesture a little slower than for a quiet class. When you have finished making the gesture, everyone is quiet and you can start explaining he subject matter.

If a student disrupts the lesson, you reinforce positive behaviour with body language (attention: quiet or stop). If the student responds well to this, you give a compliment.
If a student does not respond well to this series of gestures, then that is the moment you give a Tip, using the abacus and (with whole class teaching) your notebook. You walk up to the abacus. This lets the student who is not responding to your request for attention know that you are considering giving him or her a Tip. By walking toward the abacus, you give the student another chance to pay attention.
If even walking toward the abacus has no effect, then you give a Tip and rotate the image of the abacus one image away. You grab your Tip Book, walk up to the student and give a Tip. Only at that point do you use your voice (Giving a Tip).

5. Body language doesn’t suit me

During the Friendly and Fair Teaching course, the coach introduces a number of gestures and asks what they might mean. Some of the gestures used by FFT are immediately clear even without explanation.

There are students who say they have no affinity with the use of body language. FFT advises these students to start by giving a compliment: thumbs up. That always works.

If you find that a gesture works well, try one of the other gestures as well such as: lighthouse, start, start and softer

Your discomfort with using gestures can be reduced by having your students communicate among themselves with gestures as well.

5.1 Persuasion

As you notice that students respond increasingly well to your body language, you become convinced of the usefulness of gestures and may decide to use other gestures as well. Before using a new gesture, introduce the gesture to the class and practice it with the class. With each new gesture, tell the class that the gesture is part of a teaching style that minimizes disruption to the explanation and avoids giving warnings.

Gestures do not stand alone. Gestures are only convincing when you use them in conjunction with the other components such as Tip, Future behaviour letter, and the cooperation with a senior member of staff.  In conjunction, you see these four steps reflected in the ‘Ladder of action’. This makes gestures part of a convincing way of reinforcing positive behaviour, in which you make students partly responsible for the positive learning environment and in which the different sections of the school work together.

6. Gestures and special needs students

Special needs students sometimes have difficulty interpreting your facial expressions, body posture and emotions. With the previously mentioned gestures like lighthouse, start, attention, softer and thumbs up as compliments, special needs students have no trouble. They understand these gestures immediately and have no problem when you use them. What they do dislike are verbal reprimands, especially if you mention their name. They hear their name too often in other classes. Agree with these students that you will never call their names. If you accidentally do, they may point it out to you.

Consider making a personal gesture with a caring student that applies only to them:
Make an appointment with a student who requires a lot of attention. If this student has a question, he can indicate it with a gesture, you respond with a special gesture agreed upon with him/her indicating that you have seen the gesture and will come by as soon as you have time.
Agree with a student with too much energy that you will make a time-out gesture when he/she is too busy in class. With this gesture, you are telling that you give permission to take a lap. Another meaning of this gesture can be: go see a supervisor. You will have agreed this with the supervisor beforehand.

7. Multiple options for giving nonverbal directions

Nonverbal directions take little time and as a result everybody can concentrate. Meanwhile, you continue your verbal explanation of the subject matter. Your inaudible directions do not distract students from your explanation. Because you no longer give verbal warnings and no longer look angry, your explanation is clear and undisturbed.

Inaudible directions can be given without showing annoyance or looking overly happy. Students respond well inaudible directions because they naturally pay attention to body language and other signals.

Gestures are used to give nonverbal directions. The position where you stand can already be used as a signal. Walking only one step towards a student can have an effect.

7.1 Giving directions with an image

Showing a picture is an alternative way of giving directions. This picture can combine word and image.

  1. When you give a Tip, you also change the picture of the (Abacus). With the images of the abacus you show in a way visible to the group how many Tips you have given and when your limit has been reached.
  2. When you change your approach to teaching (Managing expectations folder)

7.2 Giving directions with a sound

You can also give directions to the group by using sounds. To perform a prearranged action, for example: stop working. An example is the school bell that announces a change of class. Find your own sounds and use them to give directions during your lessons. Now follow three examples from PO:

  1. On the Prowise IWB there are sounds of different musical instruments. You can use these to give a signal without having to say anything. For example: if the drum kit goes off, the teacher wants to start the lesson. In the 10 seconds that this sound clip lasts, stop talking, look at the board and wait quietly until the sound clip ends.
  2. Round out the period when students are working independently: Agree with the class that you signal the end of independent work by clapping a rhythm. You agree with the class that they will then clap along that rhythm. After the stop sign, start a new explanation. Practice this with the class. During independent work, you then play a rhythm as agreed. With the stop sign you end the rhythm: everyone stops at the same time. You now start explaining the next part of the lesson.
  3. Picking a bell: A teacher took three bells with her. She asked her students which bell they preferred to hear when she asked the group for attention. With this question, she engages her students in a positive learning climate.

8. Summary

If you teach in a calm and relaxed manner, students are likely to adopt your calmness. Giving nonverbal directions with gestures, by showing pictures, by making use of your position in the class, by making one step towards a student and by using sounds all add to the calmness and the effectiveness of your instruction. Over time, your students get used to your nonverbal directions and can concentrate better.

  • If there are many students who “have trouble sitting still,” have everyone shake out all the energy at the beginning of the lesson (or when you notice students getting busier). When everyone has shaken out his/her energy, pick up the lesson again by making the stop gesture.
  • Make all gestures friendly, slow and attentive and keep them small. Avoid bright gestures. While making the gestures, adopt an open attitude.
  • A finger snap to keep students on task is often accompanied by a dominant attitude. If you want to build an equal relationship with your students, it is better to omit the finger snap.


In 2012, Mr. Kanamori visited Pieter Nieuwland College at the request of the Rapucation Foundation. During his talk, he indicated that children around the world naturally use body language and mentioned the need for the teacher to communicate with your whole body. This advice fits perfectly with this “use body language” module.

Mr. Kanamori has been teaching in Japan. A series of videos of his teaching can be viewed on You Tube that can be found if you search for  ‘Children full of live’.

10. Credits

Freddie Hooijer – English teacher

Freddie proved that you can change a gesture that is in use with the knowledge of the whole group. He also showed how important it is for students that you see them: Read more