Best Practice

Behaviour: Verbal and non-verbal communication

There are many children who expend much of their time and energy trying to decipher adult communications and masking their responses with ‘poor behaviour’ when they feel that they have misunderstood. Sara Alston looks at verbal and non-verbal communication

All teachers know that effective understanding of language and communication are vital for successful teaching and learning. The majority know that more than 90 per cent of communication is non-verbal (Mehrabian, 1972).

However, there is often a disconnect between this knowledge and classroom practice. This is often rooted in a lack of focus on communication as a two-way process: with both the teacher (and other adults) understanding the child and the child being able to understand the adults. Non-verbal communication is a key, yet frequently ignored, component of this process.

Behaviour as communication is understood at some level by most teachers, even those who profess a “zero-tolerance” approach (Lightfoot, 2020). But this is not always embedded in an understanding of non-verbal communication as a two-way process.

So, for example, a child makes a face and the teacher may react to what they believe is a disrespectful response to what they have just said. In fact, the child is responding to a physical or emotional discomfort unknown to the teacher.

Alternatively, the teacher directs a “hard stare” at a particular child who is fidgeting and who does not notice or understand the communication, while the child sitting next to them does and responds to what they perceive to be an unjust reprimand. Unfortunately, the possibilities for misunderstanding are almost endless.

We tend to assume that what we are communicating has been understood and understood in the way we have intended. However, both the communicator and the listener/receiver do not always realise that the message has not been understood fully or correctly. Even with verbal messages, there is huge scope for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. For example:

  • A teacher says: “Wait a minute.” The teacher means: “I will be with you shortly, but I must do something else before I give you my attention.”
  • Most children will perceive this to mean: “The teacher will pay me attention when they have finished what they’re doing, and I can wait until then.” They are able to wait without anxiety.
  • A child with a literal understanding may perceive this to mean: “I need to wait 60 seconds, no more and no less.”
  • A child who has experienced trauma may perceive this to mean: “I don’t like you and I don’t want to deal with you ever.”

In the last instance, the child may show this through their behaviour. The adult then gets cross. The child responds by feeling angry or realising that they have got it wrong and feeling stupid, embarrassed or upset.

Either way they communicate this through further “poor behaviour” or another inappropriate behaviour, for example overcompensating for their feelings of rejection. The adult sees and responds to the behaviour, rather than addressing the failure of communication and subsequent misunderstanding, setting up a cycle of miscommunication.

Equally, when the child’s masking of their lack of understanding is not a big or disruptive behaviour, it is very easy to assume that they have understood. Yet, children may behave in various ways to mask their misunderstandings (which they may or may not be aware of), including:

  • Confidently answering or doing something other than what the teacher asked, whether it is a different task, or the right task but in completely the wrong way.
  • Confidently writing a small amount convinced that they have fully and perfectly answered the question.
  • Tentatively answering something in a brief way because they do not feel sure they are doing the right thing.
  • Being quietly busy; engaged in something, including “helping” someone else, that at a quick glance looks like completing the task, but in reality, is not.
  • Procrastinating but appearing to be trying hard. Though they feel anxious and lost, they do not want to attract the attention of the teacher or get into trouble.
  • Avoiding engaging with the task because they have no idea what to do. They may appear to be messing around and not settling in small and annoying ways, or acting out to distract from the task at hand, by getting into a confrontation or feigning sickness.

For teachers, it is not what you communicate or even necessarily how: it is about what is perceived and understood. Difficulties with verbal and non-verbal communication are common for many children, including those with all forms of SEND:

  • Specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, impact the understanding and production of spoken as well as written language.
  • Children with attention and focus difficulties struggle to focus on and therefore to understand and process communication of all forms.
  • Children with cognitive difficulties will struggle to understand, recall, retain and process communications, language and vocabulary.
  • Children with hearing impairments will struggle to hear what is being said. This includes children whose hearing is reduced when they have a cold or similar and so may miss interactions and the details of communication at these times. These children need to be able to see the speaker’s face and mouth to support their communication, including lip-reading. This will be a particular issue as mask wearing in certain areas of the school becomes more common.
  • Children with visual impairments will be more dependent on verbal communication and may miss many of our non-verbal communication cues and facial expressions.
  • Children on the autistic spectrum often have particular difficulties interpreting facial expressions and non-verbal communication. This can be compounded by difficulties understanding non-literal language, including figurative language, metaphors, irony and sarcasm.
  • Children with sensory and processing difficulties may struggle to identify which sound (e.g. the teacher’s voice) they are supposed to be listening to from the range of sounds that they can hear. They may be distracted by visual or physical issues making it more difficult for them to focus and process what is being communicated.

With non-verbal communication, there are children who do not understand the non-verbal communication and those who understand it, but are confused by a mismatch between the verbal and non-verbal communication. This can often lead to the misunderstandings which cause children to act out.

There is an oft-repeated truth that children know if you do not like them. Even where children struggle to interpret communication and understand emotions, they can feel them. Often parents will say that their child is happier or works better with someone who is smiley and bouncy. This communicates to the child that they are liked and valued and so motivates them. Equally, children are often aware when the adult’s non-verbal communication is dismissive, nervous or aggressive even where the verbal communication attempts to give a different message.

To make our communication in the classroom as effective as possible, we need consciously to use body language and gestures to support and reinforce our message. This can be simply pointing to where we want a child to move to or at the object we want them to pick up, to the use of a raised hand to indicate “stop” or an upwards gesture to indicate that we want the children to stand up.

Many teachers do this instinctively, but yet miss that for some children it may need to be more unambiguous to ensure the message is clear and understood. Some of our children will need teachers to be more explicit in what they are doing, even to the extent of smiling, pointing to their face, stating that they are smiling and explaining that means they are pleased and happy. While this is an extreme example, it is too easy to assume that because this message is clear to us, it has both been received and understood.

Think about the safety briefing on an aeroplane: the cabin crew speak, they direct your attention via physical actions to where the exits are and how to use the life-saving equipment, and then they advise you to read the safety card. This is life-saving information, so it is offered to passengers in three different ways to maximise the chances that it can be understood. We need to consider how to emulate this in the classroom.

There are many children who expend much of their time and energy in school trying to decipher adult communications and masking their responses when they feel that they have misunderstood. This may be via a distracting or avoidance type behaviours, appearing busy while doing little, low-level disruption or the instigation of high-level disruptive behaviours. This affects their ability to access learning and leads to needless misunderstandings that further affects the effectiveness of classroom communication. This in turn, threatens children’s wellbeing and mental health.

We cannot always avoid these miscommunications, but through an awareness of them and tailoring our responses based on this awareness we can minimise the impact on learning, engagement and wellbeing in the classroom. This requires us to be conscious of both our own and children’s verbal and non-verbal communications.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Visit Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information & resources

  • Lightfoot: England's school behaviour tsar: 'Letting children off again and again is like a snooze alarm', Guardian, August 2020:
  • Mehrabian: Nonverbal Communication, New Brunswick, 1972.