What We Can Learn From Students’ Body Language

Today’s blogger is Sue Ellen Henry, Professor of Education at Bucknell University and author of the article “Body Language Signals, Social Class, and Implicit Bias,” which appears in the October 2021 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of November.

Quick question: As a teacher, have you ever been annoyed at the body language a student has used in class? If you’re a human being, the likely answer is yes.

Anyone who has spent any time at all in classrooms knows that body language can be palpable. Multiply this communication by 25 or 30, and there’s a whole lot being “said” without being verbalized. But because so much of this communication remains tacit and unexplored, it’s easy to ignore it, or at least think we’re ignoring it.

Such was the case when I was supervising a student teacher in a kindergarten classroom several years back. It was September, and the classroom routine was still in flux; new students were arriving daily, as this school had a lot of what educators call “enrollment instability.” Kids were learning where to hang their coats and to move a popsicle stick to indicate that they were a “packer” or a “buyer” of school lunch. On this particular day, the student teacher invited the students to the carpet to assess the weather and count the days of school, manifest in a paper clip chain that hung from the chalkboard.

That’s when the cooperating teacher said something to me that made the body language of these 24 5- and 6-year-olds manifest: “I can predict right now who will have to repeat kindergarten,” he said, scanning the class.

I’m sure this teacher knew that the majority of these children were from low-income backgrounds, with limited financial resources, and in some cases severe home instability. But in our conversation, he didn’t mention these factors. Instead, he saw children who had difficulty holding a pencil, tying their shoes, and knowing when and how to sit still on the carpet.

What I saw were children who were quite poor. Our interaction made me wonder how he was seeing their social class status revealed by their body language.

Research suggests that most of the nation’s 3.3 million teachers are solidly middle to upper-middle class (NCES Fast Facts, 2018; Thompson & Hickey, 2005). But the social class of the school-age population lags behind; according to the Center for American Progress, 14.4 percent of the school-age population, 1 in 7 children, or 11 million in total, lived below the official poverty line in 2019 (Haider, 2021). This factor alone makes social class an especially important component of communication in schools.

As someone who studies social class, I was intensely curious about how what the veteran teacher was seeing was potentially connected to the social-class background of the students. I launched a research project aimed at trying to better understand what elementary teachers might be seeing—without looking—as social-class signals in children’s nonverbal behavior. Although limited by the size of the survey sample and all respondents being from the state of Pennsylvania, the study nonetheless revealed some interesting trends.

What I personally find important about this research is how I apply it to my own teaching. When I find myself provoked by a student’s body language, I’ve begun to employ an “if/then” strategy: If I find myself annoyed, confused, bewildered, or uncertain about a student’s body language, then I will investigate it, write about it, consider it, and perhaps ask the student about it.

To investigate it, I will note for a couple weeks whether it happens again, and my reaction to it. I write about it to myself, noting that being provoked doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is in the wrong. It could well be that I have been over-sensitive or that it’s an isolated situation.

But if things continue in this way, I may well ask to meet with the student to say, “I’ve noticed this trend. For example, [you turn away when I invite questions from the class; you have a habit of rolling your eyes when I welcome folks to class; you often speak to a neighbor when I’m giving instructions for an in-class activity]. I often interpret this as meaning that you are bored or uninterested or irritated. Can you tell me more about this?

With this small measure, I hope to interrupt judgments about students’ interest or ability that I might otherwise conclude based on my assumptions about what motivates their body language. If nothing else, at least we’ve had a chance to be human with each other. And I might just learn that in this person’s growing up, looking someone in the eye was an aggressive stance. And that’s why the student looks away when I’m addressing him.

References

Haider, A. (2021, January 12). The basic facts about children in poverty. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/reports/2021/01/12/494506/basic-facts-children-poverty

NCES Fast Facts. (2018). Teacher characteristics and trends. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28 Thompson, W. E., & J. V. Hickey. (2005). Society in focus (5th ed). Pearson.

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