Every teacher has their own tried-and-true methods for managing a classroom. Common strategies include commending a student’s good behavior in front of their classmates or speaking to a disruptive student in private. Spoken praise or a stern warning can go a long way towards communicating with students of any age, but how do you connect with students who have mental or physical limitations inhibiting their ability to communicate?

Nonverbal cues are used to communicate with and ultimately educate students with disabilities. Although the classroom cues discussed throughout this article can be helpful for communicating with students of any age, grade level, or academic ability, they are most often used to reach students with disabilities, allowing these students to engage with teachers and peers in a way that would otherwise be out of reach due to cognitive, hearing, speech, or other impairments.

How Are Nonverbal Cues Helpful?

Nonverbal communication is symbolic. It allows teachers to convey entire concepts with a single gesture, and these simplified cues are easily understood by students with disabilities. When a teacher raises their hand, it can tell students that now is the time to remain silent and pay attention—all without a single word passing between them. A student may use cues, such as sign language, to quietly request a bathroom break or communicate with a fellow student without disrupting the class. Nonverbal cues bridge the gap between students with disabilities and the world around them. 

The benefits of using nonverbal communication are explored in a review article published in the Journal of Advances in Medical Education and Professionalism in 2017. This article revealed that students’ academic progress improved with increased use of verbal and nonverbal communication by their teachers and that nonverbal communication had a “positive and profound effect on the students’ mood.” By incorporating classroom cues into their lessons, teachers can not only boost classroom productivity but also make a positive change in the lives of students with developmental disabilities.

Examples of Nonverbal Cues

If you’re a teacher, you already use nonverbal cues in the classroom. Eye contact, facial expressions, and posture are types of nonverbal cues that students pick up on whether you intend them to or not. However, there are nonverbal cues you can use intentionally to tip the scales in your favor. What are visual cues in education? Here are some common nonverbal cues you can use in your classroom.

Hand Gestures

With practice, a hand gesture can be all it takes to get students to quiet down, line up, or pay attention. For example, when you raise your hand for attention and several of your students raise their hands in response, the rest will quickly follow suit. You can even turn nonverbal communication into a game by rewarding students if they are able to remain productive for a certain amount of time.

Printed Pictures

Many special educators hold up printed pictures when they want to convey a concept to their entire class. A red stop sign may indicate that the class is too loud, while a pencil can remind students that their peers are still working on a task. Another advantage of using printed pictures for nonverbal communication is that the images can be substituted if students become disinterested with frequently used pictures.

American Sign Language

When you teach American Sign Language, not only will your students be learning cues, they’ll be learning a second language. Simple words you can teach your class in ASL include bathroom, help, play, sit, and stop. Don’t be surprised when parents report back that their son or daughter has started signing at the dinner table.

Using Cues in the Classroom

There are a number of things to consider before formally implementing nonverbal communication in your classroom, not the least of which is how to convey cues to students with special needs. First, it’s important to carefully explain nonverbal cues as if you were teaching a lesson. You’ll also need to discuss the benefits of following classroom cues and slowly demonstrate every cue until students are able to follow with ease. Finally, it’s important to review nonverbal cues regularly to ensure that they’re fresh in students’ minds, perhaps by rewarding your class for quickly responding when they see a cue.

As with any rule, you’ll want to ensure that cues, whether used to encourage or discourage behavior, are administered fairly. No one has a more emphatic sense of fairness than a grade-schooler. If students begin thinking that cues are biased toward certain students, they’ll be less likely to follow along. You must be consistent and even-handed in all aspects of teaching, including the use of nonverbal cues.

Considering the Needs of Individual Students

Nonverbal classroom cues help teachers effectively manage large groups of students, but they can also be tailored to the needs of individual students. Students with disabilities, in particular, may have difficulty maintaining focus or controlling their emotions. These students can benefit from nonverbal cues that are personalized for them. For example, if a student is known to have outbursts, you can develop a nonverbal cue that will inform them that their behavior is unacceptable without the need to reprimand them in front of their peers.

Other students may have physical limitations that prevent them from participating with the rest of their classmates. For example, not every student is going to have the fine motor skills needed to form signs when learning American Sign Language. Teachers in this situation may accept an approximation of the sign or explore a different nonverbal cue.

Expand Your Skills as a Special Educator

Nonverbal communication is just one of the many skills you’ll need as a special educator. In addition to utilizing nonverbal cues, you’ll need to be able to recognize developmental disorders, provide for students’ unique needs, and help students with disabilities reach their full academic potential. These are all fundamentals covered in our online Master of Arts (MA) in Special Education program. If you’re interested in learning more about the techniques employed by special education professionals, consider enrolling in the online MA in special education program at The University of Texas Permian Basin.

Learn more about UT Permian Basin’s online MA in special education program.