Roberto is referred for special education testing by his fourth grade teacher because he seems inattentive in class. The bright Latino boy rarely makes eye contact with her when she speaks. She’s afraid he has “tuned out.”

How can an educator decide if a child from a culture different from her own has a learning disability? If you are the parent of a child like Roberto, how can you help his teacher understand the nonverbal messages of your culture?

In everyday conversation, spoken words are only one way to communicate. As little as 7 percent of a message may be expressed in words. The rest is through facial expression, voice tone, body gestures, and overall posture. When the verbal and nonverbal messages don’t match up, people pay more attention to the nonverbal message. That’s what’s meant by the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

It may be difficult to understand nonverbal messages because different cultures have different expectations about eye contact, physical touch, body gestures, etc. A person’s gender, age, position in society, level of acculturation, and individual preference can complicate communication even more.

Let’s consider eye contact. Kids from many Latin American and Asian cultures show respect by avoiding the glance of authority figures. A teacher who’s unfamiliar with this cultural norm, however, might interpret the lack of eye contact as just the opposite — a sign of disrespect. For many American Indian children, looking a teacher in the eye and answering her question in front of the class is “showing off.” Yet a teacher who doesn’t know this could think the child was unmotivated or inattentive.

Culture greatly influences attitudes about physical contact, whether it’s a handshake, hug, or pat on the back. In Asia, female friends often hold hands and men casually embrace one another as they walk down the street. Americans, however, may feel uncomfortable with such public behavior. In some Asian cultures, affectionately patting an adult’s head is strictly taboo, although it can be acceptable behavior between adults and young children.

How close should people stand to each other when they’re having a conversation? In areas of the Middle East and South America, people stand very close when talking. European Americans like to have more distance between them, while some African Americans prefer even more space. You can create great discomfort by standing too close to another person. Not being aware of this can even prevent someone from understanding or accepting the ideas you’re trying to get across.

To create a positive environment for communication, your nonverbal message must closely match your verbal message. First, recognize your own expectations about nonverbal communication, and then find ways to learn about those of individuals and other cultures. One way to do this is to carefully observe how kids and families speak and behave around each other and with people of authority. This can provide clues about the true meaning of their nonverbal interactions.

Nonverbal messages have a powerful impact on what’s communicated. When a person is sensitive to these silent messages, he’s far more likely to interact with others in a friendly, comfortable manner and to make his spoken message more understandable.

© 2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation.