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Dr. Fred Jones's
Tools for Teaching

Meaning Business: Part 2
The Body Language of Commitment


Before reading this column, you might want to read or review Dr. Jones's previous column Meaning Business, Part 1: Calm is Strength, Upset is Weakness.
Ask any parent, "Do your children know how to push your buttons?"

"Oh yes!" they will reply.

"Do they know when you've 'had it?'"

"Indeed they do!" they will say with a smile.

Your kids read you like a book. Before they are two years old, they will know your every mood and gesture, and they will know how to play you like a violin -- when to push, when to back off, when to act submissive. Kids read body language. They are born with that ability, and they get better at it with each passing year.

When kids go to school, they already have a Ph.D. in parent management, and all of those skills will transfer to you. They will know what you are going to do before you do it, because you will tell them -- with your body language.


"Calm is strength, upset is weakness" was the title of our last segment. We learned how the fight-flight reflex is our natural enemy when attempting to mean business. We can quickly review by asking two questions:

  • When you are calm, who is in control of your mind and body?
  • When you are upset, who is in control of your mind and body?

One of the first lessons you must learn about discipline management in the classroom is that it is first and foremost emotional. You cannot manage another person's behavior until you can manage your own. We must learn to manage ourselves.

In our previous column, we learned that relaxation is the antidote to the fight-flight reflex and that relaxation is a skill that can be mastered with practice. Relaxation training begins with learning to breathe properly. If you have taken a "prepared childbirth class" or have had training in stress management or yoga, you probably have practiced the slow, rhythmic breathing that relaxes your entire body. In this column, we will begin to examine the body language of meaning business. Meaning business is predicated on your ability to be calm -- rather than upset -- in the face of provocation. We will assume that you have already practiced relaxation and have acquired some mastery.


Imagine that you are helping a student when, out of the corner of your eye, you catch some "goofing off." You look up to see one student poking another as they both giggle.

This is your moment of truth. It is time to act. Dealing with the disruption immediately signals to the class your main priority - discipline comes before instruction.

Discipline comes before instruction for one simple reason. If students are goofing off, they will not be doing your lesson. And, if you fail to respond, the entire class will know that "the coast is clear."


Read More!

Have you seen these Education World articles...

...About Dr. Fred Jones?
* The King of Classroom Management! An Education World e-Interview with Classroom Management Expert Fred Jones
* Preferred Activity Time (PAT) Is Preferred by Kids and Teachers!
* Tips from Fred Jones's Tools for Teaching

...By Dr. Jones?
* Meaning Business -- Part 1: Calm is Strength, Upset is Weakness
* Escaping the Paper Grading Trap
* Adding Motivation to Mastery
* Beyond Say, See, Do Teaching: Exploiting Structured Practice
* Teaching to the Physical Modality: Say, See, Do Teaching
* Weaning the Helpless Handraisers -- Part 2: Teaching to the Visual Modality
* Weaning the Helpless Handraisers -- Part 1: Reinforcing Helplessness
* Succeeding With Classroom Structure: Rules, Routines, and Standards
* More Time on Task, Less Goofing Off

Beware! Stopping instruction to deal with such an ordinary disruption might be the last thing in the world you want to do right now. Imagine, for example, that you are in the midst of helping a struggling student who has almost "got it." What could be more important than finishing what you are doing?

It is easy to "pull your punches" at this critical juncture -- to continue instruction while hoping for the best, rather than dealing with the problem. If you fail, however, to commit to the problem as soon as you see it, then all your classroom rules are nothing but hot air. The students know you saw the misbehavior, and they know you chose to do nothing. At the very least, the students know that dealing with typical classroom disruptions is not worth your time.

Accept that discipline management is always inconvenient. It is an unpleasant intrusion into instruction. For that reason, commitment has nothing to do with convenience. Rather, commitment comes from a simple observation of unacceptable behavior. Your response is automatic and immediate. Without mental clarity on this issue, consistency is impossible.


Students are gamblers. From time to time, they like to gamble on having a little bit of fun in class instead of doing schoolwork. If students worry about getting caught, they gamble conservatively; they gamble only on occasion; and they gamble only when conditions are right. They might wait until you are on the far side of the room with your back turned, for example. If students know you would rather not deal with the situation, however, they will gamble like bandits.

How do students know whether to gamble long or short? They watch you. You tell them with your body language.


Seeing students goofing off in class is upsetting by its very nature. You will have a fight-flight reflex. As a matter of routine, therefore, take a relaxing breath and slow down. Get control of your emotions before you begin to deal with the situation.

If you are working with a student, give yourself a moment before you turn to deal with the problem. If you are moving and talking, however, simply stop. The sudden change in behavior signals to students that the problem you observed is on the front burner and everything else is on the back burner.


Imagine that, after seeing the problem and committing to it, you turn toward the disruptive students. By the time you have completed your turn, they will know whether or not they need to take you seriously.

Communication with body language takes place rapidly. Let's slow down "the turn" and look at the signals that are being sent. In body language, "the devil is in the details."

Move Slowly: When you are calm, you move slowly, and when you are upset, you move rapidly. So, move slowly. That will take practice.

A normal turn takes two or three seconds; a slow turn might take five or six seconds. When you stand and turn slowly, imagine that you are Queen Victoria turning in regal fashion toward an offending subject. The lack of expression in your face says, "We are not amused."

A regal turn requires some skill. To turn slowly, turn from the top down in four parts; 1) head, 2) shoulders, 3) waist, 4) feet. If you were to turn in a normal fashion, you would begin by picking up your foot and moving your body as a whole. This would force you to move fairly rapidly in order to keep your balance, and you would have a turn of two or three seconds.

Point Your Toes: Bring your second foot around so both feet are pointing directly at the offending students. Never make a half turn in which you point one foot, but not the other. That is a tentative gesture.

A full turn tells the offending students they have your complete attention -- that what they are doing is the most important thing going on in the classroom right now. It tells the students you are committed.

We have been reading the body language of full and partial turns since the beginning of time, and we have been describing it in such common figures of speech as:

  • Tentative: "Well, he has one foot in and one foot out. I wish he would make up his mind!"
  • Committed: "It is time to face up to the situation."

Make Eye Contact: Get a focal point and relax. Poor eye contact signals anxiety. What would you be worried about? Only rookies might be worried about what's going on in the rest of the room.

Your focus is on the offending students. Looking at them creates a mild tension between you and them. It signals an expectancy on your part. What is that expectancy? You expect them to get back to work, of course.

The students often will look at you for a second or two before it dawns on them that your response is not a momentary one that will go away soon. Then they'll "fold." When they fold, they simply get back to work.

Keep in mind, however, that you are in the passive mode. Your body and face are relaxed, and you simply are waiting for them to make a decision. You are not in the active mode, staring them down with your best "sick and tired" look. Calm is strength, remember?

Relax Your Hands and Shoulders: Waist high gestures are agitated gestures. When your mom was "sick and tired" of your messy room, she was probably gesturing at waist height as she told you to clean it up.

Relax your arms and shoulders and check your fingers for nervous gestures. Tension drains down the arms so that the final bit of nervous energy ends up in your fingers. Rubbing the tips of your fingers together is a common tip-off to students.

Relax Your Jaw: When you relax your face, you have no facial expression. However, when students get caught, they instinctively smile -- a submissive gesture that kids use to "get off the hook."

Beware! Smiling is a trigger mechanism. When a child smiles at an adult, it triggers the adult to smile back -- part of our natural body language for nurturance.

When you withhold the smile you signal, as would Queen Victoria in such a situation, that "We are not amused." Only when students try their "smiley face" routine and fail to get a smile in response do they consider an alternative -- like getting back to work.

Take Another Relaxing Breath: The ball is in the students' court. Give them time to make a choice. Time is on your side -- time to observe and think.

The most common example of doing everything wrong is nagging. Nagging is a form of upset that substitutes noise for action. Rather than signaling commitment, it signals the opposite -- "I want this to go away right now without it taking up my time." You get what you pay for.


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As you can see through a careful examination of "the turn," body language is a conversation between you and the student. You speak, they read your meaning, and they respond.

For discipline management, the game of poker is an apt analogy. When one party raises, the other party must either bet or fold. You will have to be a player if you want to teach your students to fold quickly and get back to work.

The game -- the conversation in body language -- might go on for a while, however. After all, one of the students might be a player too. He or she might raise you several times before the cost gets too high.


If you do everything right as you turn and commit to the students, they probably will get back to work. Most teachers have experienced "looking students back to work." That success would indicate that their body language is effective.

On the other hand, the students might not get back to work -- even though you are doing everything right. After all, in human behavior, nothing comes with a guarantee.

In our next column, we will describe a conversation in body language that takes place if a student "raises" you. What would the raise look like? What do you do if the student keeps raising you?

This article is condensed from Dr. Jones' award winning book Tools for Teaching. Illustrations by Brian Jones for Tools for Teaching.

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