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Tutor Tips: Body Language

The following Tutor Tip from Dr. Carmine Stewart appeared in the September 2021 issue of Tutor News for Seeds of Literacy volunteers.

Tutoring adults often involves detective skills. 

A student may be reluctant to say they don’t understand, or to speak up if they are uncomfortable, but a perceptive tutor will notice subtle changes in student body language. Our Site Coordinators often look at student-tutor pairs to gauge how the interactions are going. They look to see if students and tutors are “leaning in” for the lesson, if both students and tutors are engaged in the lessons, or to see if there are any shifts in student-tutor interactions. 

Tutors can also determine if a tutoring session is going well by paying attention to 1) distance, 2) open-closed stances, 3) signs of agitation, and 4) shifts in “the climate.” 

  • DISTANCE: When a student is comfortable in a tutoring session, they may require less physical distance from the tutor. You may notice a student move a bit closer to you, or even ask to remove the physical barriers in the classroom when they are comfortable. When a student is uncomfortable you may notice a shift, or feel that the student is attempting to increase the physical distance between you. A student’s posture/stance can also be an indicator of discomfort. 
  • STANCE: In a closed body posture a student’s arms and legs may be crossed or close to the body as if the student is closing himself or herself off; this is seen as a protective stance. With an open stance, the student’s arms and legs are more relaxed, indicating emotional comfort. 
  • AGITATION: In addition to distance and stance, students who are not comfortable in a tutoring situation may show signs of agitation such as fiddling with pencils, biting lips, lack of eye contact, or bouncing a leg up and down nervously.
  • CLIMATE: Finally, shifts in “climate” can indicate discomfort. If your interactions with a student suddenly shift from warm to cold, that can be an indication that something has changed. For example, a student who is open, but then begins to avoid eye contact and fiddle with the pencil, or a student who is talkative and then switches to providing one-word answers or not speaking, is communicating that something has changed for them. These shifts could be because they are tackling more difficult content and need reassurances, but they could also be an indication that something in your interaction rubbed them the wrong way. 

So what do you do if you notice a shift in a student? 

  • Well, the easy option is to excuse yourself from the table (or Zoom room) for a moment and discreetly share your concerns with your Site Coordinator. They can then speak with the student, hear their concerns, and decide on the best way to address them. 
  • What you can also do is share your observation with a student, and see if there is something you can do to help. For example, you might say, “Mr. Smith, I noticed that your knee is bouncing up and down like a jackhammer. Are you okay?  Did I say something or do something to upset you?” 

Attending to a student’s mood by checking in with a student if you feel a shift in the atmosphere can help ensure that each tutoring session is fulfilling for you both.

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A recognized leader in the field of adult education, Dr. Carmine Stewart currently maintains dual roles as:

  • Vice President of Programming for Seeds of Literacy – overseeing the development of workforce partnerships, the creation and launch of the Beginning & Struggling Readers program, professional development for tutors, and the GED in Spanish initiative
  • President & CEO of ACES (Adult Consulting and Educational Services, formerly Aspire) – conducting research, evaluation, assessment, data analysis, and professional development training for school districts and adult literacy agencies.