Ultimate Guide: 26 Non-Verbal Communication Tactics for Distance Learning

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Compared with the familiarity of an in-person classroom, teaching remotely is a strange beast indeed. Building relationships with students… engaging young people in the challenges of learning… even pacing out lessons is totally different in the virtual classroom. The whole process all feels so, well, distant.

The good news is that there are strategies teachers can use to replicate their warm, engaging demeanors in the remote classroom, many of which are actually nonverbal. Below, I’ve curated a handy guide for teachers to try out these strategies with their virtual classes. Enjoy!

Helpful Hand Gestures

The use of hand motions in the virtual setting is one way to show enthusiasm, help communicate ideas more clearly, celebrate the hard work of your students, and more. Here are 6 tips for how to use your hands as effective communication tools:

1. Use your hands to celebrate individual student wins

Try giving a student a “virtual high five” or “elbow bump” up to the camera the next time they exceed an academic or behavioral expectation. These prizes are quick and free for students, but you know what they say: “the best things in life are free.”

2. Join hands to create a whole group celebration

Virtual high fives are an excellent 1:1 celebration, but they can also make for a full group party.

3. Conduct a lightning fast True/False poll or pacing survey

On the fly, you may need to adjust your pacing according to students’ progress or poll students on true or false questions. Hand signals can be a great way to do either.

4. Demonstrate how you’d like students to organize their screens

You can move and arrange your hands to mimic the arrangement of various windows on screen. For example, you may want each student to resize their Google Meet video window and move it to the right side of their screen, while they keep your slide deck on the right side of their screen. Use your hands on screen to mimic this process.

5. Chunk multi-step instructions physically with your hands

When you’re walking students through a multi-step process, such as their instructions for a group activity, you can use your hands to help physically break apart the instructions into bite-sized chunks.

6. Animate and elevate your verbal communication!

Just because class is taking place via digital connection doesn’t mean we must be robotic versions of ourselves, parked squarely in the middle of the screen with our hands dutifully on the keyboard. Use your hands to convey enthusiasm, change your tone, emphasize key points, and more. Be yourself!

Eye On The Prize & Facial Expressions

Perhaps the eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Even while connected through the ether via video conference, our eyes hold immense power to showcase our emotions, our enthusiasm, and our commitment to our students. Here are 4 ways to communicate nonverbally with your eyes:

1. Widen your eyes for emphasis, but sparingly

Having your eyes wide open shows you are singularly focused on your key point. While you certainly don’t want to spend the entirety of your lesson plan with your eyes shockingly ajar, it doesn’t hurt to strategically place a few moments throughout your lesson in which you’re doing your very best Bambi impression.

2. Side-eye isn’t always shady

You can look sideways into the camera from time to time. When looking into the camera from the side, raise your eyebrows to communicate that you’re listening and interested. Something primal in our brains recognizes the combination of tilting your ear toward the speaker and raising your eyebrows as a signal that you’re an active listener. But be careful with this strategy… if you look sideways without raising your eyebrows, you can accidentally communicate that you either don’t trust the speaker or that you are intensely irritated by them. This expression is what is affectionately dubbed “side-eye.” The eyebrows make a huge difference!

3. Mimic direct eye contact as much as possible

One of the most anxiety-provoking parts of video conferencing is where to focus our eyes throughout the course of our sessions. Do I look at this document with the agenda and notes on it? Do I look at the image of the participant who is currently speaking? Do I check myself out and make sure my hair looks OK? Or should I just give up and look off into the distance? This is something I really struggle with personally, but I’ve been doing some research to help teachers not struggle with it so much.

A recent study from a University in Finland found the same psychological effects of direct eye contact – trustworthiness, warmth, compassion – in video calls as in live person-to-person interactions. This confirms that what we do with our eyes has immense communicative power, even across the internet.

The best way to mimic direct eye contact while you’re on a video call? Place the speaker’s “tile” as close to the computer’s webcam (usually top center – you can’t miss it) as you possibly can. Of course, you’ll still need to glance away from the speaker to take notes, switch slides, answer chat messages, etc. but at least this tactic gets you part of the way there.

4. Ye Olde Nod-And-Look

This one’s an oldie but goodie used by everyone from restaurant servers (nodding as they ask, “would you like fries with that?”) to Fortune 500 CEOs. Try nodding while making a key point the next time you’re on a video call.

When the speaker is nodding, their head movement quite directly impacts whether or not the listener believes the speaker is telling the truth. When combined with simulated direct eye contact from Tactic 3 above, nodding as you speak conveys your authority and leadership. It’s also a simple way to show students you’re listening actively when they’re speaking!

Proximity & Posture

Body language is crucial for effective leadership and communication when meeting face-to-face, and it’s equally important on your video calls! Here are 4 tips (plus a BONUS) you can use tomorrow to leverage your screen space and physical presence effectively during your next video lesson, either synchronous OR asynchronous:

1. A straight back will take you straight forward

My mom’s admonitions about my slouching posture at my childhood kitchen table have never been more prescient than now. Sitting or standing straight with your shoulders held proud is perhaps the quickest way to convey confidence, calm, and clarity, even if internally we feel anxious or insecure. The same posture lessons apply to video conferencing.

2. Lean in toward the camera (slightly) to emphasize key points

This is one time where you can let your straight posture lapse. You can lean a few inches closer to the camera to really hammer home a key instruction or idea for your students.

3. Lean back when outlining a big-picture idea

This tactic pairs beautifully with tactic 5 from the “Helpful Hand Gestures” segment above. When referencing a big picture idea – or a set of instructions with multiple steps – you can lean back, taking up relatively less space in the frame. This leaves room in the frame for hand gestures and imagination.

4. Utilize lateral movement on screen

One of the easiest ways to signify that there are multiple perspectives about an idea is to shift your shoulders, head and neck from one side of the frame to another. Combine this with Tactic 4 from the first section of this post (Helpful Hand Gestures) for an added benefit.

BONUS: “Raise The Roof” Celebration!

Place your hands at the top of the frame, as if they were pressed onto the ceiling. Then, simultaneously push up with your shoulders and sink down with your head and neck to create an instant “raise the roof” effect! For extra roof-raising, teach your students the move!

Tech That Enables Non-Verbal Communication

In addition to the physical tactics outlined above, you can also enable great non-verbal communication through technology. This section, featuring 5 helpful non-verbal communication technology tips, will be especially handy for educators whose students are not permitted to enable their webcams for security/privacy reasons. But it’s also good stuff for any teacher facing the challenge of teaching remotely!

1. Try the Nod extension for Google Meet

Nod allows you and your students (as long as the district also installs the free extension for their accounts) to send all kinds of emojis to the class to provide non-verbal feedback on any element of the lesson. For example, you could conduct a quick thumbs up/down poll using emojis, or send a “party” emoji to a student as a celebration when they knock an activity out of the park.

NOTE: You may have to go through your district’s IT Admin or GSuite Admin in order to .

2. Try the virtual background extension for Google Meet

While Google Meet doesn’t (as of writing on August 17th, 2020) have a native feature to enable virtual backgrounds (like Zoom) or background blurring (like Microsoft Teams), there are some extensions that allow users to do so. Check this one out for Google Meet. Once you’re successful getting the extension installed, check out the next section of this post, which includes several ways you can use virtual backgrounds to elevate your instruction, rather than distract from it.

NOTE: You may have to go through your district’s IT Admin or GSuite Admin in order to install this extension.

3. Switch up the view mode on your video conference software

As of writing, Google Meet allows up to 16 thumbnail tiles in its “Grid View” (though there is an extension you can add which removes this limit), and Zoom allows up to 49 tiles in its “Gallery View,” depending on the size of your computer screen. If all cameras are enabled on the session (again, some districts disallow this) you can scan to ensure students are on task, up to speed, and clear on your instructions, almost as if you were circulating around your classroom! Almost…

4. Try Zoom’s digital gestures

On Zoom, you can send Thumbs Up and Applause emojis which automatically disappear after a few seconds. This can be a great way to gather informal feedback from students as your lesson progresses or give a quick celebration for a student who’s taking the lesson to the next level. In addition, students can digitally raise their hands for questions or to ask for help.

Don’t (or can’t, due to district policy) use Zoom? You’ll have to get more creative to replicate this tactic in Google Meet. Check out the first tip in this section for one possible solution! 

5. Randomize with tools like PickerWheel

Communication – both verbal and non-verbal – is most successful when the participants trust one another. Of course, “Randomizers” have many applications in the virtual classroom, but their main value to nonverbal communication is the sense of trust they build.

A few popular examples of “Randomizers” are:

  • PickerWheel
  • Excel & Google Sheets’ RAND( ) function, and
  • TeamShake

You can use these tools to ensure your cold call selections are truly random and without bias. You can use them to shuffle the roles that individual students play in small group work. You can even use them to gamify your classroom activities. All of these applications take the pressure off educators to be the perfect CDMOs (Chief Decision Making Officers) for the class all the time.

Your Background Is Your Canvas

Surely, the Mona Lisa would still be enigmatic and striking without her pastoral background scenery, but the background also lends her character a sense of time, place, depth, and circumstance. In fact, the background helps define the viewer’s perception of the Mona Lisa’s very identity. The background of this painting has even been the basis of several conspiracy theories about her!

In this cursory analogy, of course, you are the Mona Lisa. It’s impossible to overstate the value of your background as non-verbal communication tool while you teach remotely. Just like the Mona Lisa, your background contributes to your students’ perceptions of you.

Here are 6 more tips to help you use your background as an effective non-verbal communication tool.

1. Discard distractions & leverage lighting

If you’re relatively new to video conferencing, this tip will help you immensely, because it doesn’t require a virtual background or additional extension (if you’re a Google Meet user). It sounds like a no-brainer, but there are some basics that almost every video conference participant, myself included, has forgotten at one time or another.

Here’s a good background checklist:

  • Within reason, keep whatever’s behind you neat, tidy, and distraction-free. Walls, bookshelves, and neutral toned rooms work best as your backdrop.
  • Within reason, limit movement of people and objects into, out of, and around the frame behind you.
  • Within reason, sit facing a window or bright light so that you’re lit from the front, not from behind you (what I call the “Witness Protection Program” view).
  • Level your web camera vertically so your eyes are roughly centered on the screen. The camera shouldn’t be pointing excessively up your nostrils or down on you as if you were in a hole.

2. Use your background to reinforce expectations publicly

Voice levels… key rules & norms… even your student group sizes for the next activity… you can use virtual backgrounds to communicate and repeat these expectations non-verbally. This ensures students always know what to be doing, seeing, and saying, with minimal disruption to the class if they get lost. Here’s a customizable template you can use to make your own Virtual Background with key rules and procedures.

NOTE: To use Virtual Backgrounds in Google Meet, you’ll need to install (or ask your district to install)

3. Showcase your… you!

Do you have an interest outside of teaching about which you’re passionate? Toss it on a virtual background to showcase a little bit of what makes you… you!

The possibilities are really endless here. Here are a few ideas you can add to the template:

  • A hobby you’re nerdy about
  • A trip you loved
  • A sport you play or cheer on
  • Your favorite author(s)
  • A historical or present-day figure who inspires you
  • Your favorite quote

PRO TIP: in general, if including images of people in your virtual backgrounds, it’s best if they’re looking out from the center of the screen to the edge. This way it doesn’t look like they’re staring at you or lurking behind you 🙂

4. Rep your school spirit, community motto, or class goal!

One simple idea is to use a virtual background as a showcase for school spirit. Perhaps you’ve got a motto, a logo, and/or a school theme for the school year. Perhaps you have a class-wide goal you’d like to post for your students as their north star. The virtual background is a perfect place for this. I’ve made an example with my local high school on this Virtual Background TEMPLATES document.

5. Give your virtual (or physical) background a timely academic theme

Learning environments that reflect the content area are no longer just the stuff of history teachers. Financial educators have a unique opportunity to add content area themes to their virtual backgrounds when teaching remotely. This tactic anchors your class in the learning objectives and essential questions of the each unit, giving crucial continuity to students – nice!

Here are a few thematic ideas to get you started:

  • Create 2 or 3 Essential Questions for the Budgeting Unit, and overlay them on a pie chart of the 50/30/20 model
  • Find a stock image (see what I did there?) of a Bull squaring off against a Bear to serve as a virtual background for your investing unit
  • Find a map showing the prevalence of payday loan shops in counties throughout the U.S. Use this as a virtual background for your Financial Pitfalls unit.

6. Teach like a painter

Ambient color affects how people think and behave. Take advantage of this as you design your virtual backgrounds for various learning activities.

Here are a few color psychology ideas to get you started:

  • As your students head off for an independent activity, change your background to a mellow blue or light grey hue to communicate calm and simplicity.
  • When your students are sharing out loud with the class, change your background to a bright orange or yellow to encourage confidence, bravery, and cheer.
  • When you’re conducting a “get-to-know-you” activity, add pops of color from throughout the color spectrum to communicate that your class values each student’s unique perspective. Think of the multi-color Google or NBC Logo for inspiration.

Here’s a full rundown (Credit: Huffington Post) of the various emotions that different colors inspire in brand logos: