How to Help Your “Disrespectful” Student with Their Nonverbal Language Impairment
As a special education teacher in a Title I public school in New York City, I struggled with classroom management as a first year teacher, and second year teacher and third year teacher. Student misbehavior, disruption and disrespect were the daily norm. I lived by Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, which offers essential classroom management strategies for new teachers, but it was not always enough. As a fourth year teacher, I felt fairly confident in my ability to handle typical adolescent misbehavior, until I encountered one particularly challenging student. I researched every classroom management strategy, but nothing worked.
Finally, I found an article on nonverbal language impairments. While typically associated with students on the autism spectrum, any student may present varying degrees of difficulty with nonverbal language skills. This means that any student may struggle with nonliteral language, sarcasm, rhetorical questions, body language and other nonverbal forms of language.
If you are struggling with a seemingly disrespectful student, see if their behavior matches characteristics of a nonverbal language impairment. Then try the suggested behavior and instructional strategies below.
Nonverbal Language Skills
- Understanding sarcasm, non-literal language and rhetorical questions
- Adjusting to change
- Understanding cause and effect (behavior and consequence)
- Comprehending abstract concepts
- Following rules and procedures
- Perceiving spatial-orientation (having awareness of their body in space)
- Activating prior knowledge
- Lining up numbers on a paper
- Reading graphs and charts
Signs of Nonverbal Language Impairment
- Parrot (may seem to mock) words or phrases
- Difficulty with nuances and body language despite strong verbal skills
- Difficulty with abstract, non-literal or rhetorical questions
- Awkward social skills
- Poor connections
- Get “lost” in details and forget big picture
- Often do not understand or “laugh along” with jokes
- Excellent rote memorization skills
- Assume the best; Be conscious that nonverbal language impairments often look like behavioral issues so respond accordingly
- Use literal, explicit language and avoid rhetorical and non-literal questions to avoid seemingly disrespectful “smart aleck” responses
- Repeat question, rephrase or give hint if met with silence, confusion or seemingly disrespectful, off-topic response
- Ask several students to repeat your directions in their own words to increase likelihood of understanding
- Preview texts relating to prior knowledge
- Provide organizational tools
- Provide explicit instruction on idioms, jokes, sarcasm and irony
- Provide explicit instruction on social skills, social norms and body language
I realized that my challenging student was not “disrespectful,” he simply answered my non-literal and rhetorical questions literally. He refused to respond to abstract questions or essays because he genuinely believed, as he told me, that they were pointless. His seemingly disruptive, inappropriate body language and outbursts came from a place of social misunderstanding, not deliberate disruption. Once I realized my “disrespectful” student simply struggled with nonverbal language skills, I replaced my consequences and frustration with appropriate instructional strategies. I adjusted my own nonverbal language skills to meet the needs of my student. Whether or not your student has a diagnosable nonverbal language impairment, any “disrespectful” student will positively respond to your explicit and literal behavior and academic expectations.