Skip to content Skip to navigation

Why Relaxed Alertness Provides the Optimum Emotional Climate for Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

Teachers can do much to create a temporary state of Relaxed Alertness by helping students experience a momentary sense of success, but ultimately, we are after something more. The ultimate goal must be to help students be in a state of Relaxed Alertness as a way of life.



The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at the concept of “relaxed alertness” and the positive impact in can have on life-long learning.  It is from Chapter 2 – Why Relaxed Alertness Provides the Optimum Emotional Climate for Learning, in the book 12 Brain / Mind Learning Principles in Action: Teach for the Development of Higher-Order Thinking and Executive Function by Renate Nummela Caine, Geoffrey Caine, Carol McClintic and Karl J. Klimek . Published by Corwin, A SAGE Company, 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320 (800) 233-8836, Copyright © 2016 by Corwin. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Reflective E-portfolios: One HIP (High-Impact Practices) to Rule Them All?


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

---------- 2,833 words ----------

Why Relaxed Alertness Provides the Optimum Emotional Climate for Learning


Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.  – Normal Vincent Peale (1898-1993)


Text Box:

Relaxed Alertness is the optimal state of mind for meaningful learning.

At the Core

People in a state of Relaxed Alertness experience low threat and high challenge (Caine & Caine, 1991/1994, 2010). Essentially, the learner is both relaxed and to some extent excited or emotionally engaged at the same time. This is the foundation for taking risks in thinking, questioning, and experimenting, all of which are essential to mastering new skills and engaging higher-order thinking.  In this state the learner feels competent and confident and has a sense of meaning or purpose.

Everyone knows people who have triumphed over adversity. Many examples can be found in the wonderful TED talks. One favorite is the talk given by a woman – Sue Austin – who decided that she wanted to go scuba diving in her wheelchair (Austin, 2012)!  The indispensable foundation for success in every endeavor is the right state of mind. The same is true for learning. To help people learn better, the first task is to support them in acquiring the optimal state of mind; namely, Relaxed Alertness.

The Foundational Research for Relaxed Alertness

What is a state of mind? Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel (1999) defines state as “the total pattern of activations in the brain at a particular moment in time” (p. 230). Any state actually combines aspects of body, mind, and emotions, so it is psychophysiological. In trying to describe a state, a person might say any of these statements:

-       “I believe something to be true.”

-       “I feel something in my emotions and body.”

-       “I am acting on the basis of how I feel and what I believe.”

Text Box:

Of course, many people are not aware of how they feel or even what they actually believe at the moment of action, but what they do is, nevertheless, congruent with what they feel and believe.

Let’s view Relaxed Alertness through the same lens. A person in that state might say something like this:

-       “Even though I am challenged and excited (even anxious), I feel capable and trust in my abilities.”

-       “My mind is relatively focused and open to possibilities despite obstacles or potential uncertainties.”

-       “My actions are under my control. I want to respond to this situation.”


We can get an even clearer sense of Relaxed Alertness by looking at the opposite state, one that has as its foundation insecurity, helplessness, threat, and/or fear. For example, an individual experiencing this might say one of these sentences:

-       “My body is tense and agitated because I don’t know what to do.”

-       “My mind is distracted or focused too narrowly.”

-       “My actions are not under my control. I don’t really want to act on this.”

Relaxed Alertness as a Temporary State

States can be temporary, and so Relaxed Alertness can be a temporary state that is experienced because of a particular situation. One example could be a situation where a student comes across several items on a test that the student knows or recognizes. Under those circumstances the student would very likely experience a boost in confidence.

That sense of confidence easily could generalize to a feeling of mastery for the entire test. Teachers can do much to create a temporary state of Relaxed Alertness by helping students experience a momentary sense of success, but ultimately, we are after something more. The ultimate goal must be to help students be in a state of Relaxed Alertness as a way of life.

Text Box:

Detailing the Research

We can use the term “state of mind” to refer to the cluster of brain activity … at a given moment in time. This moment can be brief or extended. The repeated activation of states of mind as time goes by – over weeks, months, and years – into a specialized, goal-directed set of cohesive functional units is what we are going to call a “specialized self” or “self state” (Siegel, 1999, p. 230). Much has been written about states of mind, ranging from the nature of mindfulness (Langer, 1989; and see the American Mindfulness Research Association: to contemplate states (Siegel, 2007). We focus here on a foundational state of Relaxed Alertness, characterized by low-threat and high challenge, as being an essential platform for meaningful learning (Caine & Caine: 1991, 1994).

Relaxed Alertness as a Personality Trait 

It is quite possible for a state to become a trait or what Siegel calls a “self state.” Over time the state becomes a part of a person’s personality – it becomes a personality trait. (For a more in-depth discussion of how traits become states in the brain, see Siegel, 1999, or B. D. Perry, Pollard, Blakely, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995). This can happen with Relaxed Alertness, which gives students a substantial head start for learning. How does this happen?

We suggest that learners who are in a more or less ongoing state of Relaxed Alertness had their genetic makeups and their biological imperatives for growth and development (which exist in every human being and unfold naturally) come together with certain consistent, positive experiences over time. This combination resulted in a brain architecture and physiological response that made the state of Relaxed Alertness a part of their identity.

Ongoing Relaxed Alertness is Grounded in Physiology

One reason why developing new traits can be difficult is that personality traits, including Relaxed Alertness, are physiologically entrenched. In part, for instance, new patterns of synaptic connections are made in the brain, and there are changes in the ways in which chemicals interact and flow throughout the body. The brain’s ability to change as a result of experience is called plasticity (Diamond, 1988; Doidge, 2007; Huttenlocher, 2002; Merzenich, 2013; Schwartz & Begley, 2002; see also Begley, 2007).

Text Box:

Most systems of the brain are plastic, that is, modified by experience, which means that the synapses involved are changed by experience. (LeDoux, 2002, p.9)

In most instances traits develop through social interactions that occur over time.

Text Box:

Genetic studies of behavior commonly note that 50% of each of the personality features measured is attributable to heredity. The majority of the other half of the variability is thought to be due to “non-shared” aspects of the environment such as school experiences and peer relationships. (Siegel, 1999, p. 19)

Once physical patterns have been set by previous experiences, only new experiences can alter them. This is where a teacher’s role becomes vital. At the heart of the work of educators is creating opportunities for students to have experiences that will develop Relaxed Alertness.

The way to begin is to know what to look for.

Individuals Who Experienced Relaxed Alertness as a Way of Life

Research from several different domains helps us begin to see who these individuals are who experience confidence, competence, and meaning or purpose as a way of life. There are several overlapping constructs (see, e.g., the health behavior constructs examined by the National Cancer Institute). We will look at research on self-efficacy, resilience, and self-regulation.


Self-efficacy refers to an innate belief in oneself and one’s ability to achieve. This belief, based on past experience, frees learners, to a larger degree, from self-doubt and allows them to believe that they will succeed at what they do. As a result, they believe that they can learn from mistakes. They work harder to overcome potential obstacles. They see learning as being engaged in an ever-evolving process of becoming better and more capable (Bandura, 2000; Pajares, 1996; Schunk & Pajares, 2002; and for an extensive list of articles and resources, see the Emory University Web site:

Confirm for Yourself. Consider some people you know who seem to have a strong sense of self-efficacy. Which of the listed qualities do they have? How can you tell? How about your own sense of self-efficacy? Now look at your students, and answer the same questions.


Resilience and self-efficacy have a great deal in common. Resilience refers to the ongoing, deep capacity to bounce back from failure or setbacks. People who struggle against enormous obstacles, say, to survive by struggling to find their way back from being lost in the wilderness, have resilience. The term often is used to describe students who survive poverty or abusive environments. Resilient kids survive and thrive despite the odds (Gillham, 2000; Reivich & Shatte, 2002).

Students with resilience (see Davies, 2002) are likable; they have social skills and are socially competent, have coherent moral or spiritual beliefs, have problem-solving skills, are self-directed, and have a sense of autonomy.

Confirm for Yourself. Consider some people you know who seem to be fairly or very resilient. Which of the listed qualities do they have? How can you tell? Have there been times when you were very resilient? Now look at your students, and answer the same questions.

Self-Regulated Learners: Students Who Take Charge of Their Own Learning

One area of great interest to educators is research that focuses on the development of self-regulated learners (Boekaerts, 1996; N. Perry, 1998; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1990; Zimmerman, Sebastien, & Kovach, 2002). Self-regulated learners believe that they can influence events and have learned how to sustain motivation, set appropriate goals that are attainable and challenging, use appropriate strategies, and manage their time and resources. This means that they can wait to see what emerges and “hang in there” over time.

Self-regulated learning also is correlated with meaning or purpose (Stipek, Feiler, Daniels, & Milburn, 1995; Turner, 1995). This means that these students are more likely to feel competent and confident and to engage in adaptive decision making.

Confirm for Yourself. Consider some people you know who seem adept at regulating themselves and their learning. Which of the listed qualities do they have? How can you tell? How about your own capacity for self-regulated learning? Now look at your students, and answer the same questions.

Relaxed Alertness

Clearly a shorthand way of describing this cluster of qualities is needed. We use the term Relaxed Alertness, and we suggest that the core features emerging out of this research can be summarized as confidence, competence, and motivation grounded in meaning or purpose. These attributes will be clarified further in the rest of this section of the book, but we can already see how valuable these qualities and attributes are for effective learning. For instance, students in this state would be clear about their goals, be able to persist and overcome the confusion that naturally occurs when learning new material, and be able to acquire new strategies and cope with difficulties as they learn.

Brain research has begun to confirm and explain these findings. (For a more in-depth look at the optimal state of mind for learning and the Mind State Continuum, see Caine & Caine, 2002, chap. 11.)

Text Box:

Students with self-efficacy and resilience and who have become self-regulated learners are using their capacities for higher-order thinking.

Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Common Threads

Let us pull together the threads from these three bodies of research. Students with self-efficacy, resilience, and self-regulation tend to have the following qualities and capacities in common:

-       Setting short-term and long-term goals and believing that they will succeed

-       Persisting under pressure

-       Visualizing a positive future (optimism)

-       Searching out successful strategies or resources

-       Having a more positive attitude

-       Possessing good social skills (getting along with and being liked by others)

-       Being independent (autonomy)

-       Using time management, which includes being able to pursue goals when situations change

-       Knowing how to learn and how they learn

-       Evaluating themselves

Text Box:

Students with well-developed executive function have foresight, hindsight (as a way of influencing present or future decisions), and insight into self.

Now we can see that the same general set of capacities, though often spelled out in different terms, largely overlap the capacities that are attributed to the prefrontal cortex (Miller & Cummings, 1999; Van Eden, Uylings, De Bruin, Feenstra, & Pennartz, 2000) and executive function of the brain (located behind the forehead). As we first note in Chapter 1, higher-order functions (executive functions) include these skills and capacities:

-       Engaging working memory – the temporary storage of information and more to be called on while dealing with complex mental tasks

-       Using reason, assessing risk, and making sense of ideas and behavior

-       Moderating emotions

-       Setting goals, planning, seeing ahead, and having a sense of an extended future

-       Being resourceful and knowing when to seek help from others and other sources

-       Demonstrating flexibility in thinking and being able to shift or add tasks

-       Thinking critically and creatively

-       Reflecting and engaging in self-examination, also known as metacognition

Higher-order functions also include a sense of interconnectedness based on perceiving complex patterns (concepts, metaphors, and other abstractions) and complex relationships among facts or events. Some also suggest that they are involved in experiencing a sense of spiritual connectedness (J. Austin, 1998).

Text Box:

Point of Significance

When learners take charge of their own learning and experience success over time, they are not just more successful (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). They also literally are growing a brain and mind that ensure future successful learning. So developing higher-order thinking skills is the indispensable key to ongoing powerful learning and, therefore, to raising standards that include higher-order functioning, and all this requires an environment that fosters competence, confidence, and motivation to learn more.

Reflection: Something to Think About

Do a preliminary assessment of your own executive function. How easy is it for you, as an adult, to anticipate the future or use the past to understand yourself? To make it real for yourself, give an example of each.

Learned Helplessness: The Opposite

Increasing the use of executive functions and having a sustained mental state of Relaxed Alertness are the ideal objectives. Unfortunately, much of the time the reverse occurs. As we will see more clearly in Chapter 3, helplessness and fear lead to activating the threat response in the brain and the physiology. This response, along with the chemicals that accompany it, keeps the learner’s thinking at a more automatic, survival level, which is characteristic of helplessness (LeDoux, 2002; Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1996; Sylvester, 2002).

Students, who tend to experience helplessness or a lack of power, have difficulty grasping the fact that learning (like life) is an ongoing process. For some people, helplessness is shown as a tendency to see the world in terms of “snapshots” that cannot be changed (Peterson et al., 1996). People are seen, for instance, as either smart or dumb. Things tend to be seen in very concrete terms, limited to what is directly observed or experienced. In Goldberg’s (2001) terms (see Chapter 1), these individuals favor veridical thinking – they tend to refer to events or information as either true or false, right or wrong – including their own characteristics and the characteristics of others. Their beliefs leave little room for processing (reflecting on possibilities), ambiguity (seeing value in two or more solutions), and emergence (waiting for a solution to emerge).

Carol Dweck (2006) characterizes these differences in terms of mind-sets. She argues that some learners have fixed mind-sets. They believe that their abilities, talents, and beliefs are set. These students don’t like failure and deal with situations by seeking to look smart. Other learners have growth mindsets. They believe that they can improve. They are then more likely to persevere and work through setbacks and apparent failure.

Because so much of the learning of veridical thinkers focuses on what others want them to do, they fail to decide on, or to initiate, goals. They do not see that they can influence or control a situation. When this becomes a consistent pattern for students, it is referred to as learned helplessness (McEwen, 2001; Peterson et al., 1996; Wallenstein, 2003).

We can see that students who believe that they are smart or are dumb and can’t do much about it also tend to decide that success or failure is dependent on someone else’s judgment. All too often when students steeped in helplessness do succeed at a task, they don’t know why they succeeded because they believe they are “dumb” (as a permanent state). And those who believe that they are “smart” often don’t understand when they do fail at something that they can take additional action. Many just give up. They not only give up on learning; they give up on using and developing their own knowledge and unique abilities.

Confirm for Yourself. Consider some people you know who often seem to be helpless. Which of the attributes described in the preceding paragraphs do they have? How can you tell? Now look at your students, and answer the same questions.

Let’s apply this to the relationships that are either empowered or passive. Take a moment to reflect on your own learning experiences. Think of a body of material or skill that you mastered and a body of material or skill where you did not succeed. How did you feel in each case? What was your attitude in the two different situations?


Austin, J. (1998). Zen and the brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bandura, A. (2000). Self-efficacy: The foundation of agency. In W.J. Perrig (Ed.), Control of human behavior, mental processes, and consciousness (pp. 17-33). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Begley, S. (2007). Train your mind: Change your brain. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Boekaerts, M. (1996). Self-regulated learning at the junction of cognition and motivation. European Psychologist, 1(2), 100-112.

Caine, G., & Caine, R. (2010). Strengthening and enriching your professional learning community: The art of learning together. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Caine, R.N., & Caine, G. (1991, 1994). Making connections: Teaching and the human brain. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Davies, L. (2002). Ten ways to foster resiliency in children. Retrieved from

Diamond, M. (1988). Enriching heredity: The impact of the environment on the anatomy of the brain. New York, NY: Free Press.

Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes  itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York, NY: Penguin.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Gillham, J. (Ed.). (2000). The science of optimism and hope: Research essays in honor of Martin E. P. Seligman (Vol. 2). Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.

Goldberg, E. (2002). The executive brain: Frontal lobes and the civilized mind. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Huttenlocher, P. R. (2002). Neural plasticity: The effects of environment on the development of the cerebral cortex. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

LeDoux, J. (2002). The synaptic self. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

McEwen, B. (2002). The end of stress as we know it. Washington, DC: Joseph Henfry Press.

Merzenich, M. (2013). Soft-wired: How the new science of brain plasticity can change your life. San Francisco, CA: Parnassus.

Miller, B., & Cummings, J. (1999). The human frontal lobes. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings. Review of Educational Research, 66(4), 543-578.

Perry, B. D., Pollard, R., Blakely, T., Baker, W., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits.” Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271-291. Retrieved from

Perry, N. (1998). Young children’s self-regulated learning and contexts that support it. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(4), 715-729.

Peterson, C., Maier, S., & Seligman, M. (1996). Learned helplessness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Reivich, K., & Shatte, A. (2002). The resilience factor. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Schunk, D. H., & Pajares, F. (2002). The development of academic self-efficacy. In A. Wigfield & J. Eccles (Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 15-31). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Schwartz, J., & Begley, S. (2002). The mind and the brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York, NY: Guilford.

Stipek, D., Feiler, R., Daniels, D., &  Milburn, S. (1995). Effects of different instructional approaches on young  children’s achievement and motivation[E1] . Child Development, 66(1), 209-223.

Sylvester, R. (2002). A biological brain in a cultural classroom (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Turner, J. C. (1995). The influence of classroom contests on young children and motivation for literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 420-441.

Van Eden, C. G., Uylings, H.B.M., De Bruin, J. P. C., Feenstra, M. G. P., & Pennartz, C. M. A. (Eds.). (2000). Cognition, emotion, and autonomic responses: The integrative role of the prefrontal cortex and limbic structures. In Proceedings of the 21st International Summer School of Brain Research (pp. 23-27). New York, NY: Elsevier Science.

Wallenstein, G. (2003). Mind, stress, and emotions: The new science of mood. Boston, MA: Commonwealth Press.

Zimmerman, B., & Martinez-Pons, M. (19990). Student differences in self-regulated learning relating grades, sex, and giftedness to self-efficacy and strategy. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(1), 51-59.

Zimmerman, B., Sebastien, B., & Kovach, R. (2002). Developing self-regulated learners: Beyond achievement to self-efficacy (psychology in the classroom). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.