Posted by: carolread | July 10, 2010

N is for Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)

Is Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) unsubstantiated nonsense or can it help us become more effective teachers?

NLP was originally developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder at the University of California in the 1970‘s. Its name derives from the three areas it purports to bring together: Neurology – our minds and how we think; Linguistics – how we use language and how language affects us; Programming – the ways we behave to achieve desired goals.

NLP is to do with developing your own personal effectiveness through the detailed study of human excellence and ‘modelling’ the behaviour of outstanding achievers. NLP helps raise awareness of your own internal states, beliefs, values and motivations, and offers powerful tools to bring about personal change. It also provides a wide range of practical techniques to help you develop rapport, communicate more effectively, manage your own internal responses and external behaviour, and positively influence other people.

NLP draws on a wide range of fields most notably hypnotherapy (Milton Erikson), Gestalt therapy (Fritz Perls) and approaches to family therapy (Virgina Satir). Over the years, NLP has been used for training and developing people’s personal and professional skills in many different areas such as education, business, sales and sports. NLP has often been embraced with passionate fervour (e.g. as happened for a while when it became a ‘band wagon’ vogue in ELT in the 1980s and 1990s). NLP has also sometimes been interpreted in ways that are contentious, manipulative or downright wacky. There is very little empirical research evidence to underpin many NLP claims and, as with the previous posting on Multiple Intelligence theory, it therefore comes with a large, upper-case ‘health warning’.

Despite this, NLP has much to offer in helping us to fulfil our own potential as teachers and our children’s potential as learners. To give you a flavour, here are three basic concepts drawn from NLP which I’ve found useful:

1 Sensory acuity: This is the term used in NLP for the process of learning to draw fine-tuned distinctions from the multi-sensory information we get from the world around us. Sensory acuity refers to our ability to be aware of the emotional experience of others by noting small details in their facial expressions, voice and body language. We do this all the time naturally and intuitively. However, it can help us to teach more effectively if we sharpen the detail that our senses pick up in order to ‘read’ the mood and chemistry of our classes more effectively. Through training ourselves to notice in detail children’s verbal and non-verbal responses, and the patterns of these over time, we can become increasingly alert to the characteristics of individual children and more sensitive and responsive in adapting the way we teach to meet different needs. Examples of things to look out for are patterns and changes in individual children’s:

  • voice – speed, volume, tone, pitch, pace, inflection;
  • eye movements – up, down, left, right, combinations; degree of eye contact;
  • facial expressions – eyebrow movements, smiles, frowns, grimaces, muscle-twitching, lip movements;
  • head – angled to one side, held up, down;
  • body posture – bent/upright;
  • gestures – movement of legs, arms, hand gestures, foot tapping, fidgeting.

Sensory acuity is to do with developing your professional ‘radar’, of having a sense of what’s going on between individuals and in the group at any time, or of having as the saying goes ‘eyes in the back of your head’. Although different children convey internal emotions in different ways e.g. foot tapping may indicate boredom for one child and anxiety for another, individuals generally tend to be consistent, and the more we pay attention to the emotional ‘display’ signals of the children we teach, the better we are able to respond appropriately and help children progress towards desired learning outcomes.

2 Perceptual positions: These refer to different ways of perceiving an experience. In NLP there are three basic perceptual positions. Awareness and ability to move into different perceptual positions can help to improve interpersonal effectiveness, lesson planning and classroom management skills, as well as relating to parents, colleagues and bosses. The three basic perceptual positions are:

1st position – the self perspective: This is to do with seeing the world from your point of view. Use 1st position when you want to be clear about what is important to you and stand up for your values and beliefs. Choose 1st position for explaining what you expect of the children, for giving constructive praise and feedback, and in meetings with parents and colleagues.

2nd position – the other perspective: This is to do with empathy and seeing the world from another person’s point of view. Use 2nd position to develop a sense of what it’s like to be a child in your lessons and to anticipate the kind of activities and techniques that will be most effective. Use 2nd position when planning lessons, anticipating responses, explaining concepts or asking questions.

3rd position: the observer perspective: This is to do with looking at the situation as an outsider, without any emotional involvement. Use 3rd position to monitor your teaching as you do it. Choose 3rd position when dealing with behaviour issues in order to keep calm and not take things personally.

Above all, it’s important to be able to vary your perceptual positions:

If you’re always in 1st position, you’re liable to come across as emotional, selfish and inconsiderate.

If you’re always in 2nd position, you need to take care as others may walk all over you.

If you’re always in 3rd position, you’re liable to come across as cold, uncaring and distant.

The ideal is to be able to ‘visit’ and do a regular ‘rain check’ on all three positions. This is on the assumption that you’ll be more effective and influential if you’re able to understand the other person’s point of view and at the same time maintain an overall ‘bird’s eye’ view of what’s going on.

3 Pacing and leading: This is an NLP technique which essentially refers to establishing rapport or getting on the same wave length with other people (pacing) in order to then influence them to change their behaviour and take them to where you want to go (leading). For example, if you come into class and the children are leaping around full of energy and not ready to focus and concentrate, instead of starting the lesson by asking them to stop, sit down, be quiet etc and fighting against their current mood, it tends to work more effectively if you get on their wave length by doing a short activity that makes positive use of their physical energy (pacing) and then leads them to a calmer state in which they are more receptive to learning so that you can start your lesson. Short aerobic sequences which start energetically and end with children seated and breathing calmly work well for this, or you can use the following action rhyme:

The exercise rhyme

First touch your toes

Next run on the spot

Then stretch your arms

And bend a lot

After that look up

Stretch your arms up high

Imagine you can touch the sky!

Finally relax sit down and then

Close your eyes and count to ten!

(Get the children to count to ten in a whisper getting softer and softer until you’ve ‘led’ them to sitting still and silently, with their eyes closed (well, maybe) at the end ready to start the lesson.)

So what do you think about NLP? Is it unsubstantiated nonsense or can it help us become more effective teachers? It would be great to hear your views and/or your experience of NLP and whether you’ve found it useful and effective or a waste of time.


Photos: i) Setting off to the course venue with fellow students on the NLP Practitioner course I did in Brittany in August 2007 ii) Some of the course participants relaxing in a coffee break with NLP trainer, Jane Revell (centre back)

The exercise rhyme is from English Club, C. Read & S. Salaberri, Macmillan Heinemann ELT



  1. Carol,

    Since I can’t determine whether no people have responded or you haven’t moderated, it’s hard to even attempt to point fingers at the fact that such a good post hasn’t generated discussion.

    Whether or not it fits an overall “overarching” grand-unified-theory of EFYL education, there’s a whole lot of commonsense contained in this post that I intuitively understand as a parent.


  2. Hi Matt

    Great to see you back here! Although I haven’t posted over the summer, I have been ready to moderate and yes – yours is the very first response to the NLP post! I’ve also slightly wondered why it hasn’t generated discussion – any ideas?

    I find it reassuring that you feel the post contains commonsense that you can intuitively relate to as a parent and am very glad that this came across.

    Thanks again for breaking the silence!

  3. Hi Carol,
    Well, the way you explain NLP, it all makes sense to me. As Matt has said above “there’s a whole lot of commonsense contained in this post.” Such a brilliant post deserves being discussed over and over.

  4. Hi there

    Many thanks for posting this comment. I’m really glad that the ‘common sense’ of NLP came across to you too and that you think it’s worthy of discussion.

  5. Hi Carol,

    Thank you for sharing a little about NLP, I am a firm believer in such things as body language and like to think that I am a very intuitive teacher who ‘picks up’ on varying ‘signals’ from my students. I am so happy that there is a school of thought in this vane and will gladly discuss more in the future. Keep blogging. Mary

    • Hi Mary
      Many thanks for writing. I’m glad you can relate to the aspects of NLP I mentioned in the post. It’s also interesting that you mention being ‘intuitive’ and ‘picking up’ on ‘signals’ from your students. Through awareness of the concept of ‘sensory acuity’, for example, we can learn ourselves, or help others to develop (e.g. on teacher education courses), that elusive ability to be ‘intuitive’ which is after all what so much of teaching is all about.
      Thanks again for your thoughts – and for the encouragement to keep blogging!


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