Jan. 25, 1999 Writer: Kristin Harmel
Source: Vicky Zygouris-Coe, (352) 392-9191, ext. 282
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Children are quick studies when it comes to their teachers' body language, and the messages they get about their teachers' feelings toward them can have a profound effect on their classroom performance, a University of Florida researcher has found.
"Not only what we teach, but how we teach and the learning community we create in the classroom, are going to become the evidence for not only what you think of the students but what they think of themselves," said Vicky Zygouris-Coe, an assistant professor in UF's College of Education. Zygouris-Coe did the research for her dissertation at UF.
Zygouris-Coe found that students often interpret things such as their teachers' body language, the order in which they are called on and the intensity with which they are listened to as signs of their teachers' feelings toward them. Many students even cast a skeptical eye on teachers' compliments, she said.
"That was really interesting to find that young children would be analyzing it that much," she said. "A lot of children said, ‘She says I'm really good, but does she mean it?' This raises a lot of implications for teachers."
Jim Doud, a former president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the chair of UF's educational leadership department, said children pay more attention to nonverbal clues than many people think.
"My observation of kids says that they find nonverbal clues more realistic than verbal clues," he said. "The evidence is strong that when they believe that their teachers feel they can do something, they're more likely to achieve."
Zygouris-Coe studied 60 students in two fourth-grade classes at a local elementary school for 5 ½ months to gather data for her dissertation. She observed the classroom environment at least twice a week and gave the children written response questions during the class "journal" time four times a month. The questions were open-ended statements such as, ‘My teacher thinks that I am . . .," and the students were encouraged to write several paragraphs to explain their answers.
Each question session was followed a few days later with individual interviews in which Zygouris-Coe asked some of the children to expand on their answers.
"The results showed that children are very actively involved in what happens in the classroom," she said. "They are actively involved in their interactions, and they actively interpret those interactions."
One of the most important things teachers can do is to make an effort to know their students as well as possible, Doud said.
"If you don't have a sense of what your students are capable of and what their interests are, you'll have a hard time keeping an open line of communication," he said.
Positive nonverbal feedback from teachers -- in the form of making eye contact, paying attention when students speak and letting them know that you understand their strengths and weaknesses -- can make all the difference in the world in removing barriers to the learning process.
"I hope that this will make teachers a bit more aware of how children interpret what happens in the classroom," Zygouris-Coe said. "I definitely recommend to teachers to give very specific feedback to children, not necessarily about every aspect of their behavior, but to make frequent attempts to let children know what they think about their progress, their behavior and other specific elements of their lives."
Parents also can help their children get as much as possible out of their learning experience by encouraging them to share their concerns and talk openly with their teachers, Zygouris-Coe said. Parents also should help children see their teachers in a positive light.
If teachers take the time to listen to how their students feel and think about how their actions might affect students' perspectives, the classroom learning environment could be greatly improved, Zygouris-Coe said.
"If we really want to improve community in the classroom and learn how to better reach our students, we have to see learning through our students' perspectives," she said.
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