How do students use nonverbal communication to  intimidate or gain an advantage over teachers?

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. How do students use nonverbal communication to intimidate or gain an advantage over teachers? I first noticed this a few years ago when we had a poorly performing, disruptive, and thoroughly unpleasant student. He stood half-a-head above me and was stocky. Even though he displayed no overt aggression, I found I yielded to him whenever we passed.

I don’t know how conscious he was of the dynamic. But one day I was facing the class while standing in the narrow gap between my desk and the first lab table. The student came from my left walking toward the trash can. Normally, I would have stepped out of his way. This time, out of curiosity, I held my ground and ignored him. He stood there waiting for a long time – maybe ten seconds. There was no doubt he expected me to get out of his way. When it finally dawned on him that I wasn’t moving, he finally slid by in back of me without excusing himself. Regrettably, I made no conscious effort later to see whether standing my ground had mediated his overall behavior.

This year I’ve been noticing the same thing from lots of students who aren’t particularly large or intimidating. We’ll be walking toward each other in a narrow space and it’s always me who yields. So I did another tiny experiment the other day. It was after school and a boy was running toward the locker room. I was outside supervising and it was clear he was going to pass close by and that if I didn’t get out of his way we would collide. I didn’t yield and we hit shoulders. I’m heavy and he’s nimble so he just bounced off without breaking stride. He definitely was not upset, we had simply bumped into each other. But a few minutes later he was running back the other way and again I held my ground. This time he yielded. (I should note that he’s one our high risk students who gets in his share of trouble but whom I personally like.)

So is any of this important and what are the implications for teachers?

My guess is that yielding to others in tight spaces is learned behavior and changes as one grows. Toddlers learn that walls don’t move and adults do. After all, adults are aware of kids’ lack of awareness of their surroundings, and not wanting to get hit by a rambling three-year old, we get out of their way. With maturity, personal space is negotiated and in most tight situations both adults will yield. (How often will two strangers figuring out how to pass in a tight space, jokingly ask if the other wants to dance?) So, in most relations, yielding space to others is not a matter of concern.

But what about in student-teacher relations? In Fear in the Schools: How Students Make Teachers Afraid (1978), Carl E. Pickhardt lists multiple nonverbal “games” – his word – that students employ to intimidate teachers. The consequence is that teachers lose their self-respect and the respect of their students. In the end, instruction loses out. One point I thought was interesting is that it’s not just the aggressive students who lose respect for the teachers. Other students do, too, because they end up paying a price for the deference teachers pay to aggressors.

Pichkardt doesn’t address yielding in close spaces specifically but does write about how students use physical distance games to intimidate. For example, they use speed to make a teacher walk toward them faster or slower. Also, a group of students limits the space a teacher can move in.

Pickhardt writes that students don’t necessary “see” fear as “sense” it and that they know how to use it. His advice is that teachers need to understand fear rather than deny it. He recommends three counter strategies: 1) Don’t back away; 2) Don’t back down; and 3) Don’t give in. His final words are that teachers should, “Know the games, and how they are played – and be steadfast in your refusal to play them.”

My own thinking is that there’s a spectrum of implications to all this. In most cases, students have no malicious intent and yielding to them is a polite thing to do. In other cases, students seek, even unconsciously, to gain every advantage they can over teachers, and yielding to them is an act of submission. Utlimately, I think the less yielding the better because there could well be a cummultive message sent to all students that teachers are subordinate. (Crazy aside: This minute, literally this minute, I recalled the scene in Master and Commander in which a seaman bumps shoulders with an officer and gets lashed for it.)

Now, the fact is I’m having a great year with my students. I’m not at war with a single one. But I’ve never considered classroom management a particular skill of mine. So, I’m going to reread Pickhardt’s piece and be intentionally mindful of aggressive students’ “games” and, more importantly, be mindful of my responses.

And please, share any of your experiences or strategies to deal with aggressive nonverbal communication.

I found lots of articles about nonverbal communication and classroom management. Only Pickhardt’s dealt with nonverbal aggression, but I’d recommend the following general discussions:

Good Body Language Improves Classroom Management 

Nonverbal Communication for Educators 

Body Language and Classroom Management 

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