New Teacher Advocate — KDP New Teacher Advocate Summer 2017
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Nonverbal Interventions
Richard L. Mehrenberg

Classroom management poses one of the most challenging skills for new teachers (Christofferson & Sullivan, 2015). When students disrupt the class, teachers often feel compelled to immediately address misbehavior so that it doesn’t escalate into something worse—taking time away from teaching. Moreover, the correction can cause more disruption than the original misbehavior.

Teachers need to be excellent multitaskers by minimizing distractors while simultaneously instructing and engaging learners. How do teachers accomplish this difficult task? Try these four nonverbal behavior interventions to help maintain teaching momentum.

1.Planned Ignoring: Often a student acts disruptively to seek out attention. When we selectively and deliberately ignore a behavior, their efforts are not reinforced and they will often stop on their own (Hall & Hall, 1998). Planned ignoring depends on your level of tolerance for disruption and the severity of the misbehavior. If a student doodles on a notebook with a pencil, it is probably okay to ignore it. However, if a student doodles on the desk with a permanent marker, step in!

2.Proximity: When you were a student, where did the cool kids sit on the school bus? Chances are, they sat in the back of the bus. This is because they understood the concept of proximity. The farther away students are from the authority figure, the more comfortable they feel doing their own thing.

To use proximity in your classroom, continue with your lesson and walk toward the source of the disruption. As you move closer to misbehaving students, they usually straighten up and fly right—at least temporarily. Circulating around the entire classroom as you teach offers a more lasting solution. Do not feel tethered to the whiteboard. Engage all students in the room, making instruction personal and interactive.

3. Gestures and Secret Signals: Do not underestimate the effectiveness of putting your pointer fingers to your lips for a brief, silent shhhhh gesture. Pairing it with focused eye contact directed toward a talkative student indicates that the chatting needs to stop, while allowing you to continue whole-class instruction. Other common gestures that can serve a similar purpose include holding up one finger to indicate “wait” or a well-deserved thumbs-up for positive recognition.

A related technique is the secret signal. Some students may be especially unreceptive to a public correction of behavior. Instead, mutually agree on a secret signal that you will use to inform the student, and only that student, when certain actions are getting out of control (Medea, 2013). For that individual, rubbing your nose indicates that he needs to get back to work, but to everyone else, it looks like you are recovering from the sniffles.

4. The Look: The look—more affectionately known as the stink eye—happens when you momentarily stop what you are doing to give a sharp, disapproving glance directly at the guilty party. There is a certain Goldilocks mentality involved with giving the look: Do it too briefly and your efforts go ignored; do it too long and you risk losing the focus of your lesson. Finding out what it means to do it just right comes with time and experience.

Nonverbal interventions cannot solve every behavior problem. They are designed for relatively minor situations that enable you to carry on with instruction. Chronic disruptions or issues of safety require a firmer, more direct approach. As you become familiar with different techniques, you will learn which intervention from your teaching toolbox works best for each particular behavior issue.


Christofferson, M., & Sullivan, A. L. (2015). Preservice teachers’ classroom management training: A survey of self-reported training experiences, content coverage, and preparedness. Psychology in the Schools,52(3), 248–264.

Hall, R. V., & Hall, M. L. (1998). How to use planned ignoring (extinction; 2nd ed.). Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Medea, A. (2013). Safe within these walls: De-escalating school situations before they become crises. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Classroom.


• Planned ignoring

• Proximity control

• Secret signals blog and podcast

• Managing hyperactivity with minimal interventions

Dr. Mehrenberg is an As- sociate Professor of Special Education at Millersville University. He taught at the K–12 level for 14 years and is National Board Certified as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. His research interests include classroom management, co-teaching, and needs of beginning teachers.