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Body Language Lessons From the Classroom

Are teachers experts at reading children’s body language?

Key points

  • Children are not very good at controlling their nonverbal behavior.
  • Teachers can become expert at “reading” the body-language cues of their students.
  • Typically, elementary school children give off especially obvious cues of guilt.

I've spoken with teachers who tell me that they spend a great deal of time reading the body language of their elementary-school students. Perhaps because the kids are still learning about nonverbal communication, the teachers noted that many of their students are quite easy to “read," in terms of their nonverbal, and sometimes verbal, cues. Nonverbal communication, or body language, is the communication of information through channels other than the written or spoken word, and it involves a vast array of behavior (Hall, 2001; Riggio & Riggio, 2012)

The Tattle-Tale. One teacher told me that she could always tell when a student was about to tattle on another student. “Typically, the child will come up to me, quiet and secretive, turning their back on the other kids, and gesturing in front of their body so that the child being told on doesn’t see.”

Guilty Cues. Another teacher said that young children were not very good at covering up their misbehavior. For example, if a child is passing a note or looking at a forbidden cellphone, they will verbally deny it, but will glance to where the note or phone is hidden. “It’s like their eyes return to the scene of the crime.”

The Great Escape. One teacher told me that when supervising the playground, it’s easy to know when something bad went down: It's when you see children running away, at full speed, from their playmates. A kindergarten teacher told me this about “runners”—kids who take off running away when they’ve done something wrong: “You can always tell when they’re getting ready to run. It’s sort of like in cartoons, where the runner freezes for a couple of seconds in the running position before taking off!”

I Gotta Go. I asked primary teachers how they can tell when a child has to go to the bathroom but isn’t letting them know verbally. Responses included "hopping up and down,” and “wiggling their butt in their seat." The "crotch grab,” said another.

The Panic. Teachers agree that children tend to have exaggerated emotional expressions. One specifically mentioned “the panic face": “When a student has done something wrong (and it may not even be a serious offense), there is a facial expression of absolute horror. When you see that, you know they are about to confess.”

Talking Teacher Trash. Teachers also told me that they can tell when the students are talking about them. “They will look at you, look quickly away, and shift their eyes from their co-conspirator back to you.”

The Eddie Haskell. This one was told to me by my daughter when she was in grade school and dealing with a bullying child. The child bully would be mean to the other students, but exceptionally sweet to the teachers and other adults, just like the character Eddie Haskell on the old Leave It to Beaver show.

All of this makes sense, as decades of research on nonverbal communication in children suggests that it takes quite a while for kids to develop body-language "fluency," as suggested by Feldman and colleagues (1982).

References

Riggio, R. E., & Riggio, H. R. (2012). Face and body in motion: Nonverbal communication. In Encyclopedia of body image and human appearance (pp. 425-430). Academic Press.

Hall, J. A. (2001). Social Psychology of Nonverbal Communication. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 10702-10706.

Feldman, R. S., White, J. B., & Lobato, D. (1982). Social skills and nonverbal behavior. In Development of nonverbal behavior in children (pp. 259-277). Springer, New York, NY.

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