Non-verbal classroom management tips

Non-verbal classroom management tips from Tammi PittaroThis is the second post in the new series I’m introducing on The Cornerstone called Real Teachers, Real Tips. Each month, I’ll invite one educator to share a few classroom management tips that have worked in his or her classroom. I’m hoping to feature a wide cross-section of teachers from all different parts of the world, at all different grade levels, in all different teaching scenarios. Want to be featured here? Just fill out the guest blog form!

August’s featured teacher is Tammi Pittaro, a super talented educator who’s been in the field for 35 years!! Thank you, Tammi, for sharing your perspective here.

Hello! My name is Tammi from I am a fairly new blogger and mostly write about teaching students with high academic potential. I am excited and honored to be here as the guest blogger! Angela has asked me to share a post about non-verbal classroom management. She believes, as I do, that managing a classroom successfully is the backbone of good teaching. But first, just a little about me…

I live and teach in southeastern New Jersey, not far from the bright lights of Atlantic City and the Pine Barrens forest. I have taught in the same school district for the past 35 years. About half of this time has been at the elementary level as a classroom teacher, and the other half as a gifted and talented/enrichment specialist in grades K through 8. Currently, I teach and coordinate our district’s pullout gifted and talented program. I teach over 100 identified students in small groups in three schools during the course of the week, as well as working with whole classrooms of kindergarten students. My program is project-based and concentrates on developing creativity, critical thinking skills, problem solving and how to do authentic research. A good dose of classroom technology is thrown into the mix as well. I love, love, love to teach and work with kids of all ages, and after 35 years, teaching continues to make me smile everyday!

As I am gearing up for a new school year, I am thinking about the basics. In my opinion, classroom management is the glue that holds everything together. A strong classroom management system has always been important to me, but as a teacher who works with various groups of children each day, I have come to truly realize that it is the key to successful teaching. Since the time I have with my students is limited, it is important that we make the most of every moment. Classroom focus needs to be on learning instead of discipline. There is just too much curriculum to teach and too little time for interruptions due to student behaviors such as talking, daydreaming, distracting others and fooling around. I talk all day long as it is, so I don’t want to use my voice any more than I need to! Nonverbal classroom management techniques can really help to make the classroom a more productive and happy place for everyone.

non-verbal classroom management tips

What does nonverbal classroom management look like and how can a teacher keep students focused on learning without using words or sounds? Here are five very simple, no-cost, low-tech ways that have worked for me over the years.

1. One, Two, Three…Eyes on Me!

I have found that making eye contact with each child early and often in the day or the period helps him or her stay on track in the classroom. I make sure I greet each student warmly by name and look him or her in the eye upon entering my classroom. Then, during direct teaching or working with a few students, I make sure I continue to do so. Students are more likely to stay on task and behave appropriately when they know the teacher is watching. Making eye contact, especially in Western cultures, signifies respect, interest, appreciation, trust and friendship. It’s an important skill to teach young children and to model as you teach.

2. Work the room

Where you stand or teach can make a big difference. Moving around as you teach helps keep your students focused. Without skipping a beat, you can move nearer to those students who might be distracted or fooling around. Your proximity will send a message to get back to business, and you don’t usually have to say a word. Pause for a few moments near the student who has been off-task and teach from there for a bit before moving on. A little eye contact helps here as well. A good practice while students are working independently or in small groups is to keep moving among them. I’ve observed (and experienced first hand) that when teachers sit, trouble can be brewing at the opposite end of the classroom! And most of us can use the extra physical activity!

3. Sign Language

I found sign language posters by Rick Morris ( years ago, and I have used them ever since with students in grades K through 8. I use the first five, although he has now has fourteen in all. I have them posted in my classroom and teach them the first day of school. They are easy for the students to learn and very effective, especially in larger groups. Students like them, too! Check out Rick’s website for more good tips!

4. Keep a silent eye on the clock (or your watch)

Want to get your class quiet quickly? Just look at the clock, or your watch, assume a sad expression and shake your head just a bit. Don’t say a word! Your students will get the message loud and clear. If you deduct the time you have waited from allotted preferred activity time, such as recess or classroom games (see Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation by Fred Jones), you won’t have to wait very often for silence. I first observed this during student teaching by an experienced teacher, and it still works after all these years!

5. “S-O-R-R-Y”

In my experience, this is really effective in the primary and elementary grades. On the first day of school, explain to your students that if you ever have to write SORRY on the board, it will mean that the class has lost a privilege they enjoy, such as free time or recess. When undesired behaviors occur, start to print the word “S-O-R-R-Y” one letter at a time on the board without making a big deal about it. Don’t erase the any of the letters you have written until the end of the day or after the preferred activity. Rarely will you get to “Y.” I promise! Works like a charm.

Have you tried (or would you like to try) any of these strategies with your kids? Do you use other non-verbal classroom management techniques in your classroom? Tell us in the comments!

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience. In 2009, she turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she's created 4 books, 2 online courses, a blog, podcast, curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email to get her best content and exclusive tips & tricks!

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jen October 9, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I think the idea of using the sign language for asking/answering questions is very useful. I use a signal for the bathroom and it really helps to cut back on the time I spend asking students what they need. The students also have a sign for showing me they need their pencil sharpened, but I think these sign language tools would be great to use to further the process and to limit my classroom interruptions. Just like you said in your blog, there is so much curriculum to teach and no time for interruptions. I can’t wait to try these ideas in my classroom. Are there are any new ideas about students who constantly call out?


2 Angela Watson October 15, 2012 at 9:36 am

Hi, Jen! I love the idea of sign language to show they need their pencils sharpened. Great idea! I will try to write an article about students who constantly call out. I’ve seen this article floating around Pinterest:


3 Peter Bowman October 21, 2015 at 7:36 am

ignore call outs until you get hands. Or proclaim “I want to see 3 hands before i choose someone to answer”.


4 Tami April 26, 2015 at 10:04 am

I’m struggling right now with a student who has a very loud voice and behaviorisms. I am tired of reminding him to use his indoor voice and it only lasts a few seconds anyways. Any ideas?


5 Angela Watson April 27, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Hi, Tami! This might be one of those situations in which you make some allowances and choose which battles to fight. I know what it’s like to have students who are naturally loud and boisterous. In fact, my husband is that way! I have found there is little I can do to change that, just as there’s little anyone else can do to make me MORE loud and boisterous. My best advice is to focus on helping the student control his volume during the times when it matters most, and give some leeway during the other times of day. It can be very exhausting, I know, but hang in there!


6 Kelly Hunter June 15, 2015 at 10:57 pm

When I have kids like this, I ask them to whisper, which for them is usually a normal talking voice.


7 Peter Bowman October 21, 2015 at 7:34 am

have him practice something he usually says, in a softer or whisper voice. then come up with an agreed upon hand signal to say it softer.


8 KS October 24, 2015 at 6:35 pm

Teach the students about Level 1, 2, 3 voices. Level 1 is library, whisper level. Level 2 is conversational, classroom. Level 3 is gymnasium, playground, outdoor voice, yelling. Practice the levels, then tell the students which level they should use. If students are too loud, I remind them, we’re using level 1 voices now, for example. Or just say, “You’re lucky, your voice carries. You just have to whisper and we can hear you, so you must be mindful of how loud you’re being without meaning to be.” (My father said that to me when I was little…and my voice is loud still today, so I remind myself of this all the time. grin)


9 Angela Watson October 26, 2015 at 8:47 am

What a kind reframing! I love that.


10 Jani Wright June 6, 2015 at 2:27 pm

I started my day the same way this year! With individual greetings, small talk, high fives, sometimes hugs. I took time to acknowledge each child daily and helped address any issues they had before coming in the door.

I know this is verbal, but I have a 3 chances system. I make sure my students know the class rules well to begin with. When they break a rule (any rule except physically hurting someone), I just say “_____, that’s one”. At three, my students have a time out. By mid year I could just look at them and hold up 1, 2, or 3 fingers and point to the time out table. It worked very well this year. I also made sure that when I sent a student to time out I told them exactly why and what I expect them to do differently.
I managed pencils by having a cup on each table and cans with sharp/dull for them to switch. Tissues as needed, anytime. Drinks only during independent work time. Bathroom breaks as needed. My Kinders became quite independent and were well-behaved. This was the best class I’ve ever had, in 10 years of teaching.


11 Angela Watson July 17, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Thanks so much for sharing your tips!


12 Jen July 26, 2015 at 4:06 pm

I’ve been teaching 3rd grade for 15 years. I use positive letters and spell out DANCE PARTY or EXTRA RECESS (depending on what the class likes) for on task behaviors… But then I erase for undesirable ones. The kids love it because I dance and play WITH them!


13 Mandy Volodymyrenko August 11, 2015 at 1:06 pm

Your post includes techniques for all age groups. We often share the “Give Me Five” approach with our student teachers as a starting point for non-verbal Classroom Management.

You know the one:

Awesome post.


14 Jo September 6, 2015 at 12:45 am

I find sitting down at my desk is a very clear indicator that they need to be quiet, I don’t get up until they are quiet.


15 Leslie September 13, 2015 at 7:50 pm

3 simple hand signs help me a lot. Holding up your hand is participation in our learning activities, so for the bathroom, it’s crossed fingers; for pencils, just hold it up; for a drink from the fountain in our room, shape your fist like a cup. A simple nod from me keeps me on track and serves their needs.


16 Mary Beth September 16, 2015 at 5:46 pm

I use 1,2,3 eyes on me a little differently with my third graders. I say “1,2 “and then they say “don’t let me get to 3″. They are quiet instantly and you have their attention. If you do get to three they lose time from recess or free time.


17 Shakur October 18, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Good post. I have the methodology that less is more.

Each class period I write what they need on the board and after that I write ONLY. I write underneath that “Time wasted so far ______ min.”

I step away from the board and anchor myself to the corner of the room …..and wait. As the time moves I write 1, 2,3, etc min. Wasted.

As they start to comply I acknowledge with a very public “Thank you ____.” And repeat it for all compliers.

As the others hear Thank you, they start to see what their classmates are being thanked for and mimic their action.

Some students are still Lost in the Sauce so I just point to him and then to my eyes then to the board. At this point the other students are directing him, which is exactly what I want; I want my students to police themselves. It’s much more received coming from a peer.

When they have all of their things ready, I wait until the room is “Pin Drop” quiet.

Then in my lowest, voice usually a level below normal, I quietly tell them what the lesson is today.

If they wasted more that 6 minutes, I very calmly tell them that those ____ minutes are gone forever. That’s ____ minutes we don’t have to review a lesson or reexplain a point, or just when you ALMOST were THIS CLOSE to understanding and you just needed ____ minutes more…..the bell rang:(

I however, remind them that the test/quiz/exam is STILL coming whether they’re ready or not. “The time you wasted was your OWN.”

This works very well. My aim is to make my students as independent as possible, train them to READ AND FOLLOW instructions.

The board gets them reading as soon as they walk in the door.

Instructions are always simple and followable. As I teach boys, I’m careful not to “Layer” instructions. Simple short sentences and usually not more than 2-3 things at a time.

And yes, I have had 2 times in the last 12 years where the whole period was wasted.

I stuck to my guns. On Day 1 I told my students I will not fight to talk in this class. I refuse. We BOTH can’t talk. So if you talk, I’ll STOP talking. I’ll START again when you STOP.

My last 5th grade class got the message and the next data bout 90% of them were compliant.

I’ve used this in grades 5 up to high school and EVEN in TEACHER STAFF MEETINGS. Yup!

Sometimes the teachers are worse than the students they complain about. Sad, but True.


18 Uma Rajan October 20, 2015 at 5:54 pm

I am fascinated by the innovative methods used..Most often the initial moments are the challenge.once the quiet is achieved..The class gets hooked..However a sound preparation on the part of the teacher is imp
Since I am the coordinator of the school…I conduct the morning assembly…children tend to be excitable…I just praise one class which has settled. 4 B is standing smartly and silently..and I can see class 3C follow suit..soon all 15 classes get their act together..I also narrate a story or discuss something topical to occupy them.till the actual assembly begins…believe me..I have been able to not only get quiet but I have now voracious readers among kids


19 Susan October 20, 2015 at 11:29 pm

I taught in classrooms for 24 years before becoming a program specialist for special education. This included 14 years as a general education teacher followed by 10 years as a special education teacher. I helped mentor new teachers my last seven years. I agree that good classroom management is an extremely critical piece that allows a teacher to enjoy teaching when it is done well. I think all of Tammi’s classroom management suggestions are excellent. I actually began to use the sign language for the deaf because I had a mainstreamed deaf student in my class one year, and I noticed several benefits. Students would sometimes use it to communicate with each other or me without bothering their classmates. I also noticed some students getting better spelling test scores. I would see them spelling out the sounds of the word on their hands as they were taking the test.


20 Peter Bowman October 21, 2015 at 7:27 am

From my experience these work. Proximity & eye contact acknowledge students as people and satisfy much of their neediness. You can also play “sherrades” (SP?) by motioning to kids any message. They can usually figure it out or another student will be watching and say it for them. Keeping the focus on self-management and being a self-directed learner help with the need to “SORRY” or other punitive measures. The more you can really BE with them and be PRESENT with them, the more support & community they feel. They can feel acknowledged and settle into learning mode.
Tip: to help with self-directed, have all resources available & labeled, and steps to do listed on board.
Great tips.


21 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Presence is so important! Thanks for sharing this.


22 Rachel Harshman October 24, 2015 at 1:02 am

I have a big red tin, filled with treats – if I want attention and absolute silence, I shake the bucket. Sometimes, everyone gets a treat, sometimes no one gets a treat, sometimes just one person who was the first person to be ready to listen gets a treat. We all love the big red tin… And usually just walking in that direction gets the children’s attention.. But hearing that PARTICULAR /exciting noise gets me undivided attention.

If the day is very very exciting and energy levels are high as the sky, I also use the Power Test, a big shout out to the person who started The WorkShop Way, it’s the best system Ever… I believe her comment that the hardest thing and most important thing anyone can learn is to control themselves. To this end, the challenge is to look at the sweep hand of th clock and be 100% still for 2 minutes. I have had the children do that task individually as part of thier daily work but have also made the whole class do it with me as I whisper comments about the sounds we are able to hear, and perhaps people who are being extra still or those with a slight movement in thier hand or arm. Try it, it’s a truly amazing experience to the whole vibe of the room and not just quiet but a tranquility comes over the room that’s very different.


23 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:22 pm

I’d never heard of the Power Test. Thanks for sharing!


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