Getting your body language right

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
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What does your body language say to your students? Adam Riches discusses how you can give your teaching a helping hand by focusing on your body language

Communication isn’t simply vocal. In fact the verbal aspect makes up only a fraction of the interaction between two people. Body language or non-verbal communication is something that adds significant context and multiple extra layers of meaning to our words. A firm understanding of body language can be a real asset in the classroom – a lack of understanding can leave you with some real issues.


Space between people (proxemics) is an interesting place to start. Personal space is something that, as adults, we hate people encroaching upon. Similarly, getting physically too close to pupils may cause a negative reaction.

Be mindful of the space between you and the pupil you are in communication with. Realistically, most classrooms are relatively small – but you can still judge the situation. Getting close during a telling off could result in excessive intimidation, causing an outburst. However, being too far away could mean that the message is misheard or not fully understood.

Judge your space carefully and experiment with proximity – you will be surprised with the results.

Facial expressions

One of the most telling areas of non-verbal communication is facial expression. It is difficult to not see the anger in someone’s face as they turn from a light shade of crimson to a much deeper red. Your face gives a lot away.

This can be exploited by classroom practitioners. I find that a good stock of facial expressions allows the class to know how you are feeling before you even have to utter a single word.

With the right facial expression, you can be three-quarters of the way towards expressing your feelings without having said anything.

The basic stern scowl can be used to show quickly that you are not happy – perhaps because of some inappropriate behaviour. However, the smile with a nod can encourage the quiet girl to continue speaking, and the laugh (oh the laugh) can be an absolute gem in the classroom. Teaching is (as much as we all try to deny it) a type of acting – so act! Use your facial expressions to guide the class.

Eye contact

The eyes are a powerful asset. Never underestimate the power of eye contact. Again, we can communicate a significant amount through our eyes: anger, joy, sadness, and so on.

But our eyes can be used for a lot more. Intensity of eye contact is one of the best behaviour management tools a teacher has. It is a silent acknowledgement of: “I know what you’re doing and I don’t like it so stop.” No disturbance, no fuss. In addition, our eye contact with pupils allows us to interact with their ideas.

Showing an interest by maintaining eye contact can also be a huge motivator for pupils. In addition, it adds personalisation to the communication – you can see when a speaker is becoming uncomfortable and you are therefore able to make that pupil feel safe. Use your eyes to read the classroom.


To successfully hold the floor, teachers must maintain pupils’ attention. Sitting behind a desk isn’t going to allow that to happen.

One of the most used parts of our body during interaction is our hands. Hand movement can show a lot of different things. For example, open palms says, “I’m being honest and sincere” – it’s a better alternative to gripping or pointing a board pen when trying to get a problem pupil to get involved in a task.

But open palms is just one of many different hand expressions you could try. A good old-fashioned point, a touch of the heart, or even hand in pockets all communicate very different things. Have a think about your own practice – what do you do with your hands? What does this say to your pupils?


In reality, as individuals, we react to situations relatively instinctively. Humans are habitual so there are certain elements of non-verbal communication which are hard to control and we must remember that everyone is different. Think carefully about the messages your body language is sending to your pupils. Reflect on your own practice, read the situation and act accordingly. Then why not take it further – experiment with certain expressions to denote different feelings. Use your body language to disambiguate the messages you give to pupils – it is an art but you will soon find that less needs to be said, and it is often the things that are left unsaid that have the most impact.

As a teacher, the pupils will look to you for direction, so make sure your body language is clear and saying what you want it to.

  • Adam Riches is head of key stage 5 English language and the whole-school literacy coordinator at Northgate High School in Ipswich. You can follow him @teachmrriches


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