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Do children understand me?

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By Sue Cowleyeducational author and trainer.

Are you worried that you’re not communicating effectively with the children in your class? Then adapt these simple techniques

teacher with children

At its heart, teaching is about communication. You might be communicating a new topic or skill to your class; you could be communicating your expectations of behaviour; hopefully, you will also be communicating your love of learning. And the more skilled you can become at communicating all these things, the better your children will learn and behave.

There are many facets to effective communication. Of course, we communicate a great deal through what we say, but it’s equally important to think about how we say it. Non-verbal aspects, such as body language and gesture, also play a key role in communicating our wishes – often they ‘say’ far more than our voices ever can.

Read my lips

There are many ways in which you can use your voice to heighten the quality of your communication with a class.

Keep it quiet: Teachers (and indeed parents) often assume that using a loud voice will force a child into listening. The opposite is true – the more quietly you talk, the more likely you are to communicate effectively, because children have to listen harder to hear what you are saying. Aim for the kind of volume levels you would use when talking to a friend.

Make the most of tone: Even when children can’t or won’t listen to the words you say, they will still ‘read’ the sound of your voice. Adding tone can help you communicate emotions, such as pleasure or disappointment. You might use an upbeat, excited tone to engage and enthuse a class. You can also have great fun playing around with tone when you are reading the children a story.

Consider the speed: Adapting your vocal pace will play a significant role in effective communication. A fast pace will help you energise a class, but take care that you can still be understood. A slow pace can encourage your children to calm down, but too slow and you will send them to sleep!

Body talk

Children get a great deal of information from a teacher’s body language and facial expressions. Save your voice whenever possible, by using your face and your body to communicate your wishes to the class.

The eyes have it: The classic ‘teacher stare’ will communicate to an individual, or to a whole class, that you are waiting for attention. Your eyes can also show very positive emotions and thoughts like interest, curiosity and excitement.

Speak with your hands: Hand gestures can ‘say’ a great deal, whether it’s palms up to say ‘stand up’ or a click to say ‘I want your attention’. Your hands are also an invaluable visual aid – three fingers to reinforce three minutes, both hands up to say you want ten ideas, and so on.

Perfect posture: Your children will quickly learn to read the overall stance of your body. A tense, closed posture suggests that you are unapproachable, while an open, relaxed posture will help them feel at ease. Maintaining a good posture will also encourage you to use your voice more effectively, to breathe more deeply; and can help to avoid the back problems; that can arise from poor postural habits.

Discipline dos and don’ts

When it comes to communicating rewards and sanctions to a class or an individual, the way that you express yourself is key.

Talk it up: Reward systems are often only as good as you make them sound. When offering rewards, communicate a sense that they are valuable and exciting. Make verbal praise more effective by adding plenty of tone to your voice.

Give a choice: Communicate to the children that they have a choice about their behaviour. Outline what those choices are in a clear way – for example, ‘If you get this work done now, I can give you a sticker. If you choose not to work, I’ll be forced to keep you in at break to finish’.

Watch your tone: Aim for a note of regret rather than revenge, no matter how irritated or stressed you feel. Communicate the sense that you have no desire to give punishments, but that you will do so if forced to by the child’s behaviour.

Keep it private: When you do have to give sanctions, there are often high stakes for all involved. The key is to avoid backing children into a corner. Crouch down beside the child, speak quietly, and depersonalise what you say. Communicate a clear message: It’s your behaviour that’s the problem, not you.

Sue Cowley’s books include You Can… Create a Thinking Classroom (Scholastic) and Guerilla Guide to Teaching (Continuum). For more information visit Sue Cowley’s website

Cultural no nos

Ways of communicating vary widely around the world. In schools, and particularly in multicultural settings, an understanding of cultural differences is vital. Here’s a checklist of some common areas of difference.

Eye contact: In some cultures, direct eye contact is seen as rude and aggressive rather than respectful.

Hand gestures: Doing a ‘thumbs up’, a ‘V’ sign or pointing can all mean very different things to people from different cultures.

Personal space: The amount of ‘personal space’ required for an individual varies between cultures.

Touch: Some cultures are touch orientated; others can find some forms of touch offensive.