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How to Use Nonverbal Interventions for Behavior Problems

Learn how to manage behavior problems with nonverbal interventions from education consultant Grace Dearborn in this Howcast video.


There are a lot of ways to use non-verbals to help keep kids on task or to get from kids what you want from them, and they range quite a bit. Some simple things might be things like proximity, moving closer to a student when they're off task will help the student pause and consider whether or not they want to get back on task. So that would be considered a non-verbal intervention, moving closer to them to get them to stay on task. More involved things might include things almost like sign language, where they're particular signs you give a student to let them know what you need from them or signs that they give you, so that they can communicate certain things to you. One way to really bring in non-verbal reinforcement is in the use of visuals. When you have a procedure or a routine that you need to reinforce with your students, sometimes just telling them what you need is not enough. We have a lot of students who are spacing in and out of listening to what we're doing. We have kids with auditory processing disorders, kids with ADHD, where if we're giving our instructions verbally or telling them what we need just with our voices, they're missing it half the time. When we have visual reinforcement, it can create extra clarity and help us get what we want from our students.

If, for example, you have a student who you've posed a question to your class and the student has blurted out an answer, but what you really needed was a raised hand. If you have a picture of a student on your wall that has a raised hand that you can point to when that student blurts out as a reinforcement of "I need a raised hand" without you having to tell them that you needed a raised hand, that would be considered a non-verbal intervention. A more elaborate, perhaps, version of this is something we call the circulation ring. The circulation ring is where you think to yourself "what are the for or five thing I continually find myself saying when I'm circulating around my room, trying to help my students when they're working silently or in pairs or groups?" This might be things like, lower your voice, take out a pencil, put that away, step outside, things that you find yourself saying a lot. When you've figured out what these four or five things are, share that information with your class, "Class, I find that when I'm circulating, trying to help you all when you're in groups, I keep saying these four things over and over. Help me figure out what would be a good image, a good picture, a visual that would represent quiet down and put that away and take out a pencil." And let them be part of creating the visual reinforcement. Once you've got some ideas about what those images might be, put them together on little 2 x 2 cards and put them on a keyring or put them on a clipboard, then as you're circulating you can carry them with you, and if you have a student who needs to put something away, you flip to the picture of "put it away," and you show it to them and no verbal interaction has to occur. It's a non-verbal intervention.

Another way to use that same strategy or a similar strategy is if you have that one student who just can't seem to be on task or do anything right, you can create an entire photobook just for that student. So you pull the student in at recess or lunch or at the end of the day and you do a little photoshoot of just that student doing the correct behaviors, that student sitting in polite position, that student sitting with a pencil in their hand looking at a piece of paper, that student not talking. You create the little photobook, you put it on his desk or her desk. The next time he or she is off task, you walk over to their desk, you turn to the picture that you need them to match. They see themselves doing it correctly, and they match the picture. Non-verbal intervention.

With super young kids, kindergartener, first grade, they'd rip something like that up, not maliciously, but just because they're little kids and got a photobook, they're going to play with it. So another way to do that is to create a placemat, a laminated placemat with four or five pictures labeled A, B, C, D, and E. That way from across the room, I can look over at my student and say, "Sally, B." She looks down. B is the picture of her in polite position, she matches the picture. I tape that down to her desk and it's always there for reference for non-verbal intervention.

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