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How to develop non-verbal cues

Written by Paul Dix

Often words wash over even the most beautifully behaved children. Non verbal techniques engage the children, demand their full attention and give you another palette of behaviour management strategies to experiment with.

Children love the ritual and rhythm of non-verbal communication and play. From clapping routines that calm the room, to agreed hand signals for agreed actions, you can teach behaviour and save your voice.

“Eyes on me” is a key instruction that you need to teach well. Performing non-verbal techniques without anyone looking at you may not work out well. ‘Eyes on me’ works well because it is an observable behaviour, ‘Listen to me’ is not. It also demands that the children turn their faces towards you. Of course you can never really be sure that they are listening. They may be looking directly at you and be deep in thoughts of food/spiderman/cuddly giraffes but ‘eyes on me’ is as good as you are going to get!

If you are going to teach children a set of agreed hand signals, you might want to use recognised sign language ( rather than create your own quirky version. Whilst it might be fun to have personalised signals it leaves the next teacher they work with unable to pick up from where you left off. Create a display in the room that highlights the signs that the group are learning this week. Use signs in different areas of the room to remind the children of the rules/agreements. Put up photographs of the children’s hands signing or hand 3-D hand signs from the ceiling. You may not be able to teach the children the whole alphabet but with a few useful phrases you can adjust behaviour with flair. Time it right and you can impress waiting parents with you seemingly Mary Poppins-esque wizardry.


Of course you may prefer to route some of your non-verbal communication through puppets or your own characters. Costume cues are great for creating characters that can emphasise different levels of formality or signal the start of different routines. The bowler hat for very strict, silent lining up. The funny yellow rain hat for tidying up the painting. The thinking cloak for some really hard thinking time. The beard, moustache and magnifying glass for searching for investigating, ‘The Case of the Missing Thingamy’. A coat stand with key bits of costume means that you can introduce the children to a range of cameo characters to support your consistent early years teacher role.

Puppets are immediately magical to most children. For some children they can be too sudden and frightening. They will need to be introduced gently.  Puppets are often at their most engaging when they are controlled slowly at a slower pace than the speed of the children. The appearance of the puppet can often over excite so you might want to set a routine that ends with the puppet waking rather than one that starts on its command. Try ‘the puppet only wakes up when the room is clean and tidy’ or ‘you can say hello to the puppet when you have got your coat on’. Use the puppet as a timekeeper for the activity or to silently model correct behaviours. If you don’t fancy performing costumed characters yourself then have a few bits of costume to dress the puppet to change the emphasis or signal transitions between activities.

When you stop talking, the children immediately know how to communicate with you. They know how to play that game. I wonder how long you can lead the children without speaking? 10 minutes, 20, 40? How many new non-verbal signals will you agree or rehearse? Giving the children some time in the day where everyone is relying on non-verbal communication sharpens their skills and yours. It also gives those who are usually quiet a time in the day when they are equal: a time when the loudest children are not the first to be heard. Try a bit of action research and time how long you can safely work with the children without speaking. See how long it takes before they pick up on the game and speak to you in signs.

Your non-verbal communication is also critical when children’s behaviour must to be corrected. The safe verbal ritual that you initiate can be accompanied with non-verbal cues that help to reinforce the message and embed new routines. Where you sit for the conversation, the face of disappointment that your have rehearsed so well, emphasising your agreement with reassuring handshake are all part of your repertoire. Matching your language with clear visual hooks will help you to remind the child later on about the new behaviours that you want to see.

Leading children is a performance that is enhanced by your non-verbal embellishments. As you conduct the children to silent and happy compliance you are one step nearer to EYN (Early Years Nirvana). While you bask in the glow of outstanding practice be content that you have taught the routines for good behaviour that stay with the children long after they have outgrown your room.

© Paul Dix

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