Teacher Professional Development: Alpha State

by | Oct 30, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Let’s talk about something that is vitally important, yet rarely (if ever) even mentioned in any teacher professional development or conversation:  Having the skill to intentionally, purposefully get students into an optimal state of learning.

As a professional educator for 40 years, sometimes I think as a profession we have continually strayed away from focussing on what I think should be the center of our universe as educators: the students.  I would think that with the mass shootings in schools, pandemics, distance learning, isolation, and the impact of social media, we would be desperately seeking out ways to create a calm classroom environment so that, in spite of whatever is going on in the world or our students lives, we can create a bubble where students can feel safe and calm.

And yet, I hear more about movements to have every teacher  teach non-stop every minute of the day, all in an effort to get scores up and impress the public. There is no time given to teach teachers how to create the optimal conditions for each precious student to learn. By the way, the optimal state for learning is for students to be calm.  That’s right, calm. Relaxed, but alert and ready to pay attention.

How can students be relaxed if their parents got into a fight that morning, or if they are worried that they are going to get infected at school and will take a disease home to their families? Or if the constant safety drills derail their attention and get them anxious and paranoid. What can teachers do to help? Obviously, teachers can’t control what goes on outside their classrooms, but never forget that they do have control over a lot of what happens inside their classrooms.  Are there techniques and strategies that teachers can use on a daily basis that can help students get into an optimal state for learning?  The answer is a resounding yes!  In this teacher professional development article we will discuss a short process for getting students into something called Alpha State.  At the end of the article is a short 1 Minute Mastery video that demonstrates the technique.  

Alpha State

I believe teacher professional development should be useful to the teacher, problem-centered with less content and more time to practice. I also believe that every educator should have at least some understanding of neuroscience. After all, the brain is the organ to which we teach, so we should know how it works, even at a rudimentary level.  For example, did you know that we have four main types of brain waves?  They are called Delta, Theta, Alpha and Beta.

Delta

We have predominance of Delta brain waves when we are in SWS, or Slow Wave Sleep.  This  is when we are in deep sleep. Memories are sorted, stored and organized. The micro-tears that happen in our muscles are repaired.  Important stuff happens during SWS.

Theta

We have a predominance of Theta brain waves just before we go to sleep. This is when we are in “twilight” sleep, and just about ready to nod off.

Alpha

A predominance of Alpha brain waves happens when we are relaxed, alert and engaged in an activity.

Beta

Beta brain waves appear when we are mutli-tasking. Teachers usually have a predominance of Beta brain waves throughout the day as they simultaneously are teaching, monitoring the students for behavior and comprehension, keeping an eye on the clock and the lesson plan.

As teachers, what we want is for our students, when they are engaged in learning, to have a predominance of Alpha brain waves.  This is fairly easy to facilitate with a class. I suggest getting students into Alpha State before a lesson begins. Many students will stay in Alpha State for the entire lesson, some will not have the stamina at first, but with consistent use, students often can increase their capacity for staying in Alpha State. 

How to get into Alpha State

Getting students into Alpha State is a four-step process:

  1. While sitting at their desks, students get comfortable and close their eyes.
  2. With their eyes closed, they imagine a place where they can go in their imagination where they can be calm and peaceful. 
  3. They stay in that calm place for several moments
  4. With their eyes still closed, the teacher asks them to roll their eyes slightly up, then slightly down, then open their eyes and begin the lesson.

To convince you of the efficacy of this simple, four-step process, observe the energy and behaviors of your students before you begin.  Once you do the four steps, in that order, be aware again of the energy and behaviors of your class. You will notice a marked difference.  Will they stay that way?  Not forever, but it is very important to at least start a lesson with students in Alpha State. 

Each one of these steps has a purpose and some nuance to them.

Step One

For example, for step one, I usually say this:

“Ok students everyone take a deep breath in….now let it out slowly.  Take another deep breath in, and as you let it out, allow your eyes to close, look at the ceiling, or whatever is comfortable for you.

I want the students to take a breath in, because that in itself can be calming. Our brains also run on empty, that is, human brains don’t store any nutrients or oxygen. This is why there has to be a constant flow of richly-oxygenated blood going to the brain. If we want the students to pay attention, they must have an oxygenated brain.

I also give them the option of allowing “…their eyes to close, look at the ceiling, or whatever is comfortable for you.”  I do this because I don’t want to be an adult telling a child that they must close their eyes. This could be a huge trigger for some students. Maybe the last time an adult told them to close their eyes, something bad happened to them. I always give them the choice to keep their eyes open if they want.  In my experience, just knowing that they have the choice seems to engender some trust. I have never had a student keep their eyes open when getting into Alpha State if I give them a choice.

Step Two

I ask the students to imagine a “Happy Place”. Someplace where they would be happy and relaxed.  I don’t say “Picture a place…” Some students are great at visualizing, and some students think that if I say “Picture” a place, they are supposed to have like a 3D picture in their heads, like they are inside a postcard. Anything less could make them feel like a failure.

But if I say “Imagine” a place, that takes care of that!

Since many students don’t have much experience visualizing, I help them a lot the first few times. I would say “Imagine a place where you could be happy and relaxed. Maybe it’s in a forest, maybe at a beach or the top of a mountain, or in your own backyard.”

I further help them by asking them to imagine what they hear. Are there birds singing? Can you hear a waterfall?  

What can they smell? The salt of the ocean?  Fresh pine needles?

What can they feel? The beach sand beneath their feet?  Leaves in the forest?

I tell the students to look around in their imagination? What is above them? Beneath them, behind them?  I want them to imagine as detailed a place as possible.

Step Three

The first several times we experience Alpha State, I let the students stay there and look around and enjoy their place in their imagination.  After a few moments, I’ll facilitate getting out all together by saying “OK, we are going to stay for 3 more breaths.  With your eyes still closed or looking at the ceiling, everyone breath in slowly for four counts, 1…2…3…4…now exhale for 6, 1…2…3…4…5….6… let’s do that two more times….

Step Four

After the last breath I would say “Ok, with your eyes still closed, allow your eyes to look slightly up, then slightly down. Now open your eyes and begin to read (or look up at the board or whatever the next step in lesson requires).

Remember, I wouldn’t go through all of this detail every time. After a few times,  you can eventually say “Ok, close your eyes and get into Alpha State.  Ok, now look up here….

This is the kind of teacher professional development I believe we need right now. I think teachers need to learn practical strategies for dealing with common, everyday issues in the classroom, like how do I create the optimal state for learning in all of my students.

For dozens and dozens of other practical, useful skills like Alpha State, I invite you to check out 1 Minute Mastery. Subscribers receive 1 short video, no more than 2 minutes in length, each week delivered to their email inbox.  They will have an entire week to practice and focus on just  that one skill and get it to be part of their professional practice.  Heaven!

If you are interested in subscribing to 1 Minute Mastery or in other teacher professional development options, look at 212 CreativEd.

Teaching can be challenging. Take care of yourself. Give yourself loving kindness every day. I am sending you gratitude for everything you do for the children. 

As promised, here is the 1 Minute Mastery video on Alpha State: