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Writing on Physical Listening 

Amanda Porterfield,

Professor & Historian of American Religion, Florida State  University

November 2019


Physical Listening: A Strategic Approach to Learning

Because teachers often focus on content – on what they want students to learn – how students learn does not receive the attention it deserves. Equus helps teachers and students develop physical listening as a mode of learning. Students for whom conventional visual and audial learning comes easily find that physical listening enhances their capacity and enthusiasm for learning. Students challenged or bored by conventional modes of visual or audial learning find that physical listening stimulates their ability to understand situations and heightens interest in learning and communication with others.


What is Physical Listening?


Physical listening is a multi-dimensional form of intelligence that situates hearing and seeing in relation to spatial awareness, weight sensing, and tactile experience. Physical listening supplements and enriches other modes of hearing and seeing. It can provide additional and, in some cases, more accessible information. Developing skill as a physical listener involves attention to how people and things are spaced in relation to one another, how weight is placed and moves, and how touch conveys information. Developing this skill amplifies understanding of what we see and what we hear. It is a skill everyone acquires to some degree that can be developed further through practice. The benefits of improved physical listening include greater self-awareness, self-confidence, and clarity. Physical listening skill is also important for leadership and decision making.


What is Equus?


Equus is a non-profit organization devoted to showcasing the skills of accomplished physical listeners and translating those skills into general education. Equus Director JoAnna Mendl Shaw, formerly a member of the dance faculty of the Juilliard School, combines her long experience as a dance educator with analysis of the expertise in physical listening that equestrians develop. Equus presents remarkable performance pieces for dancers and horses. It also offers workshops in physical listening to adults and children. Some of these workshops teach physical listening through interaction with horses. Other workshops require nothing more than a room to practice and explore spatial awareness, weight sensing, and tactile experience.

Using Physical Listening to Support Executive Functioning in the Classroom: 

Developing Teacher Practice to Empower Student Learning

Amy Miller, Director The May Center for Learning, Santa Fe NM

September 2018


Overview of Physical Listening

The movement based method called Physical Listening addresses the foundation of self-regulation and contributes to the development of executive functioning skills through a focus on nonverbal communication. Developed by choreographer JoAnna Mendl Shaw, the work draws on Shaw’s extensive experience as a dance educator and a Movement Analyst.


Physical Listening explores the responsive conversation that takes place inside the complex and visceral non-verbal interactions we encounter in our everyday lives. 


Physical Listening focuses on spatial awareness, working with congruent intention and action, personal grounding, and empowered decision-making. Through movement exercises that place participants inside “situations of necessity” – solo, duet and group movement experiences that call for active decision-making - movers are asked to merge improvisational invention with strategic thinking.  In solo practice one is engaged in constant self-monitoring. In group processes, the decision making is informed by constant awareness of other moving bodies makes for powerful and effective teamwork based on highly engaged noticing and logging of information. Physical Listening is not invested in pursuing correct answers. Diversity of individual voice and perspective shapes the practice.


Shaw directs a dance company that often performs with equines. Much of the Physical Listening practice emerged from her work with horses. Communication with this animal of flight requires empathy, effective leadership, acute spatial awareness, and a merging of creative and strategic decision-making. Shaw and her company members have developed an extensive repertory of classroom methods to teach this work for 3rd-7th grade.


Physical Listening Program at May Center for Learning

The May Center for Learning is a school and outreach center in Santa Fe, NM that empowers students with learning differences to reach their potential through communication, collaboration, and community.  Our work is grounded in best practice for working with students who learn differently; as such, we approach learning as a multi-sensory, explicit, systematic process.  The teacher’s relationship to her students is a diagnostic, responsive one, dedicated to careful observation and response to each individual.  Our goal is to empower each student to take responsibility for self-regulation and their own learning in order to make meaningful connections with their communities. 


The Physical Listening collaboration at May Center has the following objectives:


  • To improve teacher communication with students

  • To increasingly empower students to take responsibility for self-regulation

  • To create authentic, “situations of necessity” in which students are empowered to own their learning experience



To begin this collaboration at May Center, we are focused on examining three questions related to our school environment:


  • How can teachers use nonverbal communication to improve relationships with students and enhance learning outcomes?

  • How does strategically structuring the classroom environment empower student self-regulation?

  • How is the development and refinement of bodily awareness, coordination, and physical listening skills connected to the development of language and executive functioning skills?How does an increased emphasis on the development of the former lead to the latter?

Examples of Executive Functioning Strategies in May School Classrooms


  1. Executive Functioning Road Map/Visualization Strategies

  • Use multi-sensory teaching methods consistently: Montessori materials, math manipulatives, etc..

  • Follow best practices of MSL teaching: break word into word family and beginning sound to decode, explicitly teach syllable types, morphemes, etc.

  • only teach and practice one spelling pattern at a time, no “theme-based” spelling lists, etc..

  • Provide images of what you would like them to write about—use visual sequence cards for idea mapping

  • Use mad lib sentences for syntax mapping, fill in the blanks, and sentence/paragraph frames

  • Use P.E.E. to map out the structure of the paragraph

  • Use simply laid out math pages, graph paper, visual organizers for word problems

  • Use visual organizers for note taking and outlining

  • Take a picture of the “Done” or provide a model of what done looks like

  • Ask:  What are the key features?  Circle key features on a photograph

  • Use Circle, Underline, Count, Complete for multi-step directions/assignments

  • Have students draw a “future sketch” of what “done” looks like

  • Use “Get Ready, Do, Done” to visually plan the sequence of action

  • Use visual checklists, work strips, work plans to make explicit the sequence and structure of expectations


  1. Executive Functioning Self-Talk Strategies

  • Visual reminders/checklists to plan or keep track of process

  • Visual emotional check in such as Mood Meter

  • Visual strategies for self-monitoring of understanding, frustration level, etc..

  • Frequently ask yourself and student to explain what she’s doing now and what the next step will be

  • I do, we do, we do, we do, we do, we do, we do, you do (individualized)

  • Mindfulness practices, especially at transitions

  • Provide consistent, visual and immediate behavioral feedback

  • Ask child to provide feedback on how he thinks he’s doing

  • Teacher talk out loud to let student “eavesdrop” on your internalized language

  • Use scripts that make explicit “self-talk”

  • Do not send home homework that requires self-talk; instead, use class time to model how to complete work that requires multi-steps such as essays, projects, and research


  1. Executive Functioning Time Management Strategies

  • Visual Timers

  • Working Clock

  • Sticky notes on calendar to plan out longer projects

  • Time Robbers

  • How long do you think this will take you?. How long did this actually take you?.


  1. Executive Functioning Color-Coding Strategies

  • Color to distinguish word family and beginning sound, syllables, morphemes

  • Traffic Light Paragraph

  • Use color to distinguish place value in math—use in all multi-step processes

  • Active Reading Strategies

  • Multi-sensory grammar

Physical Listening Observation Overview





Start Time



Activity/lesson observed

Use of Verbal/Nonverbal  Instructions or Explanations

Use of Verbal/Nonverbal Feedback

Use of nonverbal time management strategies

Use of road maps, visualization strategies, and multi-sensory teaching methods

Use of classroom environment to empower











Summary of Executive Functioning Strategies Observed:





Other Observations: 




Continuous Interval Observation of On-Task Behavior (adapted from Anita Archer)

Date:_______________________   Teacher: ________________

Observer:___________________    Start:_______ Stop:_______







Summary of Data

# of positive verbal interactions per student:______________

# of negative t verbal interactions per student:_____________

# of positive nonverbal interactions per student:___________

# of negative nonverbal interactions per student:________

% of positive verbal interactions overall:_____________

% of negative verbal interactions overall:_____________

% of positive nonverbal interactions overall:__________

% of negative nonverbal interactions overall:_________


Observations regarding interactions (teacher-student, student-teacher, student-student):


How many times did each student get up and move around during the lesson?


Was the movement purposeful?  Undesired?    Did the movement add to learning or detract from it? 


How many times did the teacher move around during the lesson?


Was the movement purposeful?  Distracting?  Did the movement add to the learning or detract from it?


Overall takeaways/questions for further thought:







Continuous Interval On-Task Behavior Observation




  1. Fill in top of form.

  2. Draw in student desks if you are observing whole group instruction.OR

  3. Draw in small group table.

  4. If you know the students’ names or a few of their names, add to the diagram.

  5. Draw an x for the teacher’s position at the beginning of the observation

  6. Record the start time.

During the observation:

  1. Record +V each time a student receives positive verbal feedback from teacher or another student, -V for negative verbal feedback, +NV for positive nonverbal feedback,-NV for negative nonverbal feedback

  2. Draw an arrow with a solid line from the student’s seat to their destination each time a student gets up and moves around the classroom during the class.If they stay in a new location for a period of time, put their initials in that new location.

  3. Draw an arrow with a dotted line from the teacher’s position each time they move to a new location. If they remain in the new location for a period of time, put an x in the new location.

  4. At the end of the observation, determine totals and % of verbal vs nonverbal positive and negative verbal/nonverbal communication

  5. Record observations about which students received the most feedback and why you think that might be, which feedback seemed most effective for which students, etc..

  6. Record observations about movement in the classroom.

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