If you ever find yourself sucked into arguments with students, battling to have the last word, or getting stuck in power struggles, this post is for you. It turns out, the calmer you are, the calmer your students will be. The opposite is also true. The more you lose your cool, the more wound up they will get. Keep reading to learn how to stay calm and control your nonverbal communication with one simple strategy.
If your students escalate, you probably do too. It is difficult to stay calm when students are agitated. When you get worked up alongside your students, it will show with your body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues. Your nonverbal communication can put your students further on edge. As a teacher, help students calm down by gaining control of yourself first.
Controlling your Nonverbal Communication
Nonverbal communication is often the outward portrayal of our inner thoughts and feelings. Your body reacts when your mind reacts. Therefore, a good first step to getting control of your nonverbal communication is to notice when you get agitated. In the next week or so, notice your physical reactions to negative emotions. What does your body do? Track those feelings and your bodily responses. Once you pay attention and note when you're reacting, then you are in a better position to control those reactions.
Once you notice your physical manifestations of internal thinking, the first step to gaining control is to take a deep breath. Yes, it's cliche, but that's because it works. Your brain's limbic system is responsible for your breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and perspiration. Taking a deep breath allows you to control all of those things, which, if left unchecked, may cause some pretty serious negative nonverbal communication.
In utero, the limbic system was one of the first parts of your brain to develop. In animals with less developed brains (skittish ones like lizards and birds), the limbic system controls a lot of their lives. It is a tool for survival and the cause of our fight, flight, or freeze responses. When you experience negative emotions or feel threatened (think a misbehaving student), that part of your brain can take over. If you don't gain control of your basic biological functions, they will make it really hard to think.
Why Breathing Works
When your body reacts to threat, it pumps oxygen to the parts of your body needed to respond to a threat...something like a bear attack requires blood in places other than your brain. Breathing deeply sends oxygen back to your brain. Also, taking the conscious step to take a deep breath brings control and intention back to your conscious brain (the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex). This part of your brain has the ability to take over control from your primitive survival brain.
Use What Happens Inside to Control What Happens Outside
When you start this deep breathing, first of all, nobody else needs to know. That's the coolest part of being mindful. Controlling your thinking and being present is something only you are aware of. Notice how your brain starts to think again when you breathe deeply. Then, you can do a body scan to attend to your nonverbal communication. Is your brow furrowed? Are your fists clenched? Did you cross your arms defensively? Are you blocking the students' escape route? Did you puff up your chest? If you said yes to any of these, go back through and reverse the nonverbal cues.
How You Should Stand
To help students deescalate, begin by gently resting your hands by your sides. Unclench your fists and make a neutral face. If you're in between the student and the door, move. Convey the message that you're not scared, mad, scary, or threatening. Help them see that they're not scary either.
How This Supports Relationships
How would students feel differently about two different teachers: one that helps them deescalate when they're worked up and one that escalates them more? When teachers can step back, realize what's happening in the situation, and take some responsibility for the level of tension, they help students feel safe. Doing so calms not only the teacher, but also the student. This move also shows students that you respect their dignity by helping them avoid a scene in class. Keep your cool, help your students do the same, and develop strong, caring relationships that will help you avoid escalations in the future.
Starting with attending to your reactions and then taking a deep breathe, you can gain control of your nonverbal communication. When you breath deeply, you send oxygen to the thinking parts of your brain. That allows you to reason and notice your nonverbal communication. Control yourself so you can begin to help students do the same. They will gain respect for you and a sense of safety in your presence.
Check out the video that inspired this post!
My name is Erin E. Silcox. I'm working on my Ph.D. in Literacy Education, focusing on the intersection of trauma and literacy. I want to deepen our base of knowledge about trauma-informed practices in schools and help teachers apply findings right now.