Professional development for teachers needs to give teachers practical solutions to real problems in the classroom, like how to keep and keep students’ attention, and what to do when they need a break. Getting and keeping attention are two different skills. Getting attention is not as difficult as keeping attention. Keeping attention for extended periods of time can be challenging. We know that we can keep a student’s attention for only so long. It’s kind of ironic that because of brain plasticity (meaning that our brains change as a result of interaction with their environment) the brains of our students have been rewired by social media and society to digest information in small, bite sized chunks of 10-30 seconds. This is how their brain’s are being wired: to take in information and pay attention for only a short time. The recent pandemic didn’t help either, as students got used to getting up and walking around, or just muting their video and microphone and leaving class whenever they felt the need. It’s ironic because this is happening at the same time that the requirement for longer periods of sustained attention are needed for the challenging curriculum in today’s schools.
In the article Keeping Attention Part 1, we learned that we can tell when the class’s attention is starting to wane by observing and interpreting some physiological cues, like moving, talking, fidgeting, etc. When any of this is happening with some frequency, we can surmise that it’s probably time for a break. But what can you do to give the students a break, refresh their attentional systems, and not create chaos in your classroom?
In this article, we will introduce a concept called State Changes: what they are, and how they are a critical tool in every effective teacher’s toolbox.
What Are State Changes?
If a student has been sitting too long, and they start to show physiological signs of needing a break, then the wise teacher does something to refresh the students’ attentional systems. If they try to push through and force the students to pay attention for longer, it can be a frustrating and ultimately losing battle. So what do you do when your students’ need a break? You do something called a State Change. A state change is a change in a student’s thoughts, feelings, or physiology. If I can do something to change their thoughts or feelings, or perhaps change their physiology by involving their bodies somehow, I can buy myself some more focussed attention time for the lesson.
As you will learn in the 212 CreativEd professional development for teachers, the great thing about state changes is that they don’t have to be long or involved, they work like magic, and you don’t have to change their thoughts and feelings and physiology. The rule is: “Change one, change all three!” If I can change their thoughts or feelings by perhaps telling a humorous anecdote or moving story, I can refresh those worn-out attentional systems and tired physiology and continue to teach for a bit longer. If I can refresh them physically by involving their bodies in a state change, then I have also refreshed their thoughts and feelings. Change one, change all three.
Physiological State Changes
Some teachers are natural storytellers and funny people. If you have that gift for keeping students laughing, or on the edge of their seats with a story, you are lucky. You can use this gift constantly, and you probably already do intuitively, to keep the students’ thoughts and feelings refreshed constantly with your gifts and don’t have the need as often to use physiological state changes. Every teacher has gifts they bring to the classroom, and if being a storyteller or being naturally funny don’t happen to be your gifts, don’t force it and try to be funny.
I use physiological state changes almost exclusively. I do plan ahead and insert random funny cartoons in a presentation, or maybe a video clip for variety and to change the thoughts and feelings of my students, but mostly I rely on physiological state changes. At the end of this article I will give you 10 state changes to get you started, but there is nothing special about the list I will give you. Just get kids up and moving. It doesn’t have to be complicated, as a matter of fact, the quicker and less complicated it is, the better. In the next article in this series, I will discuss the concepts of gradient, body gradient, and adopt/adapt, along with answers to the questions “How do you fit state changes into an already crowded academic day” and “Are you nuts? I’m going to get kids that are already fidgety, and get them up and running around the room? How will I get their attention back?” We’ll discuss these excellent and very pertinent questions in the next article There are definite answers to both of these questions.
Professional Development for Teachers: Ten State Changes To Get You Started
No professional development for teachers would be complete without practical strategies that can be immediately used in the classroom. Here are ten state changes to get you started! The definition for a state change is “A change in a student’s thoughts, feelings or physiology”. Remember, you only need to change one of these to change all three. For example, if I can tell a humorous anecdote and get students laughing, I have changed their feelings and thoughts, so I have also bought some more time with their physiology so they will be able to sit and attend to the lesson for a bit longer.
The following are the suggested first 10 state changes that you may want to try. They are all physiological state changes. The students must do something with their bodies to engage in these state changes.
Remember, watching students’ physiology is one of the best ways to know when your students need a break. The physiological cues to watch for are called: moving, talking, physiology, gaze, little interruptions become big distractions, and lack of student participation.
- Deep Breath
Our brains run on empty. The brain does not store food or oxygen, and must therefore rely on a constant supply of richly-oxygenated blood to supply it with nutrients and oxygen. To make sure there is plenty of oxygen in the blood, a great state change to try is to have students stop what they are doing and either while they are sitting or standing, take a few deep breaths in unison as a group before beginning their work again.
- In, Out Down
This is another state change related to breath. To help students refocus at the end of an exciting activity, I’ll often facilitate them taking a couple of deep breaths as a group, before they sit down. This became so common in my classroom, I now call it In, Out, Down. I say “Ok everyone, take a deep breath in (hold) and let it out. Take another deep breath in (hold), and as you let it out, slowly sit down. This is a great routine to stop one activity, and to help them refocus into the next activity.
- Finger-Thumb Switch
Have students hold up finger on one hand, hold up a thumb on the other hand, then—switch! Their finger-hand holds up a thumb, and the thumb-hand holds up a finger. Go back and forth several times as fast as you can.
- Nose-ear Switch
Have students gently hold their nose with one hand, then reach across their heads to grab their ear with the other hand. Then switch back and forth several times as fast as you can-the hand holding the ear switches and grabs the nose, the hand holding the hose reaches across and grabs the opposite ear.
- Toe Lifts
The body has several great blood pumps. The best of course is the heart, but the calf muscles also help keep blood moving. When it’s time for a state change, students stand up and do a couple of toe-lifts. They rise up on both feet at once, one foot at a time, or any other variation that you create.
- Change Location
Human memories are very contextual. We remember best when we can recall the context where we first stored the memory. When changing subjects or topics in class, one way to change the context for the students would be for you to change where you are teaching from in the room. If that is not possible or convenient, give the students 20 seconds or so to move all of their belongings to a new location in the room.
- One-song break
When students need a state change, put on a short song and let them stand up, stretch, get a drink from the water fountain, etc.
One: They can’t sit down while the song is playing.
Two: They must be sitting down and ready to continue learning by the end of the song.
Note: I like to play songs from the 1960’s—many of them are short (many Beatles songs are just over two minutes duration), have clean lyrics and are familiar to students because many of them are in movie soundtracks or have been used for commercials.
- Stand and Stretch
Have the students stand up, put on some soft music, and either you or a student lead them in some gentle stretches for 20-30 seconds i.e. have them bend over to touch their toes, reach up to the sky, slowly stretch side-to-side with their hands raised over their heads.
- Cross Clap
Stand in front of the students with your hands apart, one above your head, one by your knees. Tell the students “Every time my hands cross, you clap”. You quickly switch the position of your hands. As your hands cross in the middle, the students clap. Do this a couple of times, then start to cross but fake them out, and the students will all laugh!
- Teach it standing
We have a teaching paradigm that students must be seated while learning. If you sit too long, your blood tends to pool in your feet and in your seat. Break things up a bit and have students stand by their desks during part of a lesson, even if it’s only for a minute.
These are a few simple state changes to get you started. I recommend the book Classroom Activators, 2nd edition, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 2009, for even more state changes.
In the next article, we will discuss how to fit state changes into your day in ways that will keep the learning moving ahead and not take any time away from the lesson. We will discuss the critical concepts of Gradient and Body Gradient, and much more.
Remember, if you are looking for innovative, practical, research-based professional development for teachers that focus on practical solutions to common problems in the classroom, check out 1 Minute Mastery and 212 CreativEd today!