Nonverbal signals: An evidence-based behavior strategy

Looking for a way to foster communication while limiting interruptions during instruction? Try using nonverbal signals, which are also called silent signals.

With nonverbal signals, you and your students can communicate with each other quietly, quickly, and discreetly. It also allows students to communicate their needs to you without drawing attention to themselves.

Watch: See nonverbal signals in action

Watch this classroom video from EL Education to learn the many ways you can use nonverbal signals.

Read: How to use this strategy

Objective: Students will be able to recognize, respond to, and use pre-taught nonverbal signals for communication and to share behavioral needs.

Grade levels (with standards): K–12 (CASEL Core SEL Competencies: Self-management, Social awareness, Relationship skills)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Whole class

  • Individuals

How to prepare: 

Identify signals. Before you introduce nonverbal signals to your class, identify each signal you want to use and its purpose.

Choose signals to focus on. Prioritize just a few signals that will reduce interruptions. Too many can be overwhelming to remember and can lead to frustration instead of clarity.

Here are some commonly used signals a student may use to communicate with a teacher. 

Student signal What it means
Using the American Sign Language sign for “restroom”

“I need to use the bathroom.”

Giving a thumbs up, sideways, or down

“I do/don’t/sort of understand.”

Making a "C" shape with their hand

“I need clarification.”

Showing their hand in a "fist to five" position

“I don't understand
a concept.” (fist)
“I totally understand.” (five)

Making a three-finger “W” sign

“Can I get a sip of water?”

And here are some nonverbal signals you can use to communicate with your students.

Teacher signal What it means
Using the American Sign Language sign for “sit”

“Please sit down.”

Raising a hand with the palm up from the waist

“Please stand up.”

Raising a hand straight up in the air

“Attention class!”

Holding one index finger in the air

“Hold that thought.”
“I’ll get to you in just a moment.”

How to teach:

1. Introduce the concept. Prompt your students to think about situations when they’ve seen or used nonverbal signals in the classroom. For example, students might say they’ve seen you pat the air downward with your hands when you’d like them to lower their voices. Explain that as a class, you’ll develop shared signals that can be used for communicating quietly with one another. Talk about how these signals are especially useful for limiting interruptions during class discussions or for when you’re giving instructions.

2. Share your set of signals with your class. Demonstrate and explain the use of each signal. With younger students, consider introducing only one new signal each week. Role-play various classroom situations and ask students to show you which signal(s) could be used. 

3. Get feedback from the students. Be open to students’ suggestions for signals. Inviting your students to give input sets the expectation that you’re all responsible for building classroom community and its norms.

Encourage students to let you know if any of the signals don’t feel comfortable for them to use. Let them know it’s OK to approach you to discuss it privately. Gestures don’t always mean the same thing across cultures.

Also, students who struggle with motor skills may have difficulty making some of the signals. Share with the class any modifications or variations you’ve created based on your conversations with specific students. If there’s a reason behind a modification that’s appropriate to share with the class, such as a cultural difference in the use of a signal, make that a learning moment. (You don’t have to specify who brought that difference to your attention.)

4. Display a poster or bulletin board with an example of each signal. It can serve as a visual reminder for students and classroom guests. You can even make your own visuals by taking photos of your students using the signals. Many students also benefit from a handout version for their desks or notebooks.

5. Review and name signals. At the beginning, make sure to name the signals as you use them until most students are using them consistently. Some students, such as students who learn and think differently or English language learners, will need this verbal support for a longer time. And after school vacations or when new students arrive, review or reteach the signals. You can even have your students lead these sessions with your support.

Understand: Why this strategy works

Students who have learning and thinking differences may struggle with executive function. They often have difficulty with paying attention, regulating emotions, staying focused, keeping still, or staying quiet in class. In fact, many students (whether or not they have learning and thinking differences) struggle with these skills. You may find yourself repeatedly responding to requests for bathroom breaks or asking students to quiet down. These small interruptions can add up, disrupting routines and taking time away from instruction.

Nonverbal signals allow you to respond to students without calling unwanted attention to them. This is especially beneficial for students who may need repeat reminders. You can even co-create signals with individual students who frequently need specific reminders.

Nonverbal signals are also an effective way to check for understanding, which is important for all students and particularly for English language learners, students who process information more slowly, or those who have other challenges with communication.

With nonverbal signals, you can preserve instructional time and level the playing field for students who learn and think differently by providing an avenue of communication that’s discreet and shared by all students in the classroom.

For consistency between home and school, explain to families how nonverbal signals work. Create and share a handout or a video to demonstrate the signals you’re using in class.

Research behind this strategy

“Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behavior,” from Psychology in the Schools

“Evidence-based classroom and behaviour management content in Australian pre-service primary teachers’ coursework: Wherefore art thou?” from Australian Journal of Teacher Education

“Evidence-based classroom behaviour management strategies,” from Kairaranga

“Teaching teachers to use prompts, opportunities to respond, and specific praise,” from Teacher Education and Special Education


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