By Dr. Clive Hickson & Brent Bradford, University of Alberta

It would not be difficult to argue that teachers, on a daily basis, are constantly sending messages to students. These messages are often in the form of "you can run in the gym, but please walk in the hallways" or "make sure the mat is in the right place before you jump" and they are probably the kind of things that we have all communicated to students. Likewise, we are sure that we have all posed the question "is that a good choice?" to students in order to influence their decision making. But what do we communicate about health and activity on a daily basis?

As teachers, we are in a position where we can influence the students around us. We can influence the choices they make, the directions they decide to follow, or the actions they choose to undertake. The potential for educators to influence students is immense. For example, how many times have we heard from a parent that our words or actions caused an impact on their child? However, although we all like to remember the positive impact that we have had on those around us, we need to also understand that we can, if we are not careful, influence students in a negative manner too.

As physical and health educators, we can influence the health choices and behaviours of the students in our schools. However, it is vital that we recognize that it is not only the verbal messages that students hear from us that are important, but also the more subtle, non-verbal ones that students see. These non-verbal messages are sent, not only during our lessons, but also during such times as lunch breaks, recesses, and school-wide activities. As students may develop ideas about their own health choices and behaviours through these silent messages we need to understand the importance of sending appropriate messaging at all times.

There are, without doubt, many opportunities throughout the school year for us to send messages nonverbally to students regarding the positive effects of healthy, active living. How we present ourselves, what food items we select in cafeterias, how physically active we are, and how we treat performers with different ability levels are just a few examples of communicating nonverbally. We are truly being physical educators when we consciously send appropriate messages through our actions concerning healthy, active choices. Let's look at these a little deeper...

Dress for the Message. How we present ourselves in the gymnasium, on the playground, or the playing field may have just as much power on student learning as how we teach. For example, what we wear can impact what students think of us and our teaching (Bradford & Hickson, 2010, Lux, 2010). A study conducted with elementary school students found that the clothing and shoe choice of teachers during a physical education lesson can influence a child's perception of the competence and the demonstration capabilities of the teacher (Bradford & Hickson, 2010). So, we need to think carefully about not only how we demonstrate how to throw, physically illustrate a movement, or discuss the benefits of being physically active, but also what we are wearing while doing so.

When preparing our lessons, we should be considering what is the most effective and appropriate clothing to wear while teaching an activity. That way, we know that the students listening and watching us are receiving a consistent message rather than a message that is confusing and holds a mixed meaning. If we truly want students to adopt our messages of the importance of leading an active, healthy lifestyle "dressing for the message" is something we might all need to consider!

Being a healthy food and drink role model. It is common for physical and health educators, due to a demanding schedule of both class and extra-curricular activities, to receive only small amounts of time to snack on foods and liquids throughout the school day. What we choose to eat and drink during these times, as we walk down the hallway to the gymnasium or through the changing room to the field, is often observed by students. The messages we send to students can, if we are not careful, create mixed-signals from what was taught during health class or discussed at a team practice - water being a better choice than soda, and staying away from chocolate bars and chips in vending machines. If we are frequently consuming such food items as chocolate bars or chips in front of students, what message does that send to them? Moderation is acceptable, but we need to ask ourselves, is eating an apple instead of a bag of chips during supervision a healthier and better message to send to students?

Let's play, being physically active. Choosing to arrive at school early, or staying after the bell rings for the end of the school day to participate in physical activities with students, sends a clear message that physical activity is important for everyone throughout their lives. Engaging in an activity with students (e.g., badminton, basketball, running club, yoga, etc.), who would normally be sitting around the hallways or going home to laze on a couch, can send the message that we all cherish physical activity and that we also need to be physically active. We have a wonderful opportunity to be active whilst teaching students indirectly outside class time. We can demonstrate to them through our actions that physical activity is just as important for us as it is for them! Also, a good game of badminton against a few students or participating in a yoga session can provide all of us with the energy or focus required to have a great, productive day!

Welcoming everyone. At times, elite athletes are provided with special treatment within the school community. For example, they may be mentioned in the morning announcements or in school newsletter stories, teams may be afforded the prime time for gymnasium usage, team members may have distinctive apparel, and photos of success may be placed in trophy cases or displayed throughout the school. While this messaging does have its place within the school environment and it is important to recognize athletic achievement, we also need to carefully consider what message we are also sending to the rest of the students in our schools.

As this is often the far greater segment of the student population, we need to find ways to also recognize other levels of achievement. Dedicate time throughout the year when students who are not part of school teams are also recognized for their participation in physical activity (e.g., school-wide extra-curricular tournaments, lunch time dances and demonstrations, charity walks, etc). Every student who is enrolled in the school should be provided with some form of recognition; we need to find ways to reward their efforts during physical activities. Let's not only reward a small percentage of our school population, let us find ways to recognize everyone! Such action may be the seed of encouragement a student needs to choose a new physically active and healthy lifestyle. An extra-curricular physical activity trophy case would be a great start; let's extol everyone who participates in physical activities.

The Perfect Role in the School. As physical and health educators, we have an ideal role in schools. We can send many silent, but very powerful and influential messages to students that may help them develop healthy, active lifestyles. Paying attention to what we wear, eat and drink during school hours may have an impact on how and what a student learns from us. Next time we place a few coins into the school vending machine perhaps we should ask ourselves, "what would the students think if they saw the selection?" Even better, perhaps we should be campaigning to have the vending machines in our hallways stocked with healthy snacks! When we decide to put down our work for a few minutes to join in an activity with students we should take a moment and observe the impact we can make on the attitudes and behaviours of the students.

The manner in which we communicate to our students can help to promote healthy, active choices for all. Nonverbal messages in the school environment may have lasting effects on our students. If students are to truly become physically educated then we as educators need to ensure that we are consciously sending healthy, active verbal and non-verbal messages to them throughout the school year!

Bradford, B. & Hickson, C. (2010). What we wear: Does it matter? Poster session presented at:
        American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance Annual
        Convention; 2010 March 17 – 20; Indianapolis, IN.

Lux, K. M. (2010). How to Raise the Status of Physical Education at Your School. The Journal
       of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance
, 81(8), 40-42.

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