Learned Helplessness avatar Posted by Dr. Iektje Stephens
Mar 16, 2012
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In my work with children, teens, families, and schools, I often observe the phenomena of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is when a child loses the confidence that he can solve a problem or perform a task successfully on his own and becomes overly dependent on the assistance of adults. You can recognize the signs of learned helplessness when you hear your child or student say: “I can’t do this,” or “This is too hard,” or “I am not good at this.” Learned helplessness occurs when children lack success experiences. After trying hard for a while they tend to give up and are reluctant to attempt even a task that they could easily accomplish on their own. This video shows how easily a feeling of learned helplessness can be triggered:

Learned Helplessness Video

Unfortunately, learned helplessness is fairly common in our schools. One of the problems is the “one size fits all” approach that assumes that children who are a similar age and in the same grade learn at the same pace. It is difficult for teachers who are bound to standardized curricula and high stakes tests to accommodate individual differences and varying strengths and weaknesses and learning styles in their classroom. Therefore, children who are not mastering the concepts that are taught in the classroom at the same pace that the standardized curriculum requires are at risk for developing learned helplessness, losing confidence in themselves, and their intrinsic love of learning.

Here is another interesting video that illustrates this problem:

Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Educational Paradigms

There are several things teachers and parents can do to combat learned helplessness:

  1. Encourage your child to follow her passions. Children are natural learners, they don’t need to be “bribed” to learn, they have a natural love of learning. Unfortunately this love can get stifled, but as parents we can protect our child’s love of learning by encouraging and supporting them to delve deeply into whatever fascinates them.
  2. Teachers can structure assignments and classroom activities to maximize active engagement of students by:
      • Offering choices in activities
      • Encourage students to figure out their own strategies and ways to solve problems
      • Allow students to follow their own interests and passions within a given subject (e.g. have the student choose their own topic for a paper or their own book for a book report)
      • Have students model and mentor each other
      • Offer material at the right level of difficulty: difficult enough to be interesting and challenging, but not too difficult so it becomes frustrating
      • Design materials and assignments in such a way that students can self-correct their work and maximize success experiences.
  3. Parents and teachers can encourage the development of a growth mindset that views intelligence and talent as something that can grow and change as a result of hard work, rather than something that is fixed.
  4. Both parents and teachers should avoid rewarding academic performance. This one may sound a little counter intuitive. We are usually told that behavior increases when it is followed by a reward. This is true for simple, mechanical activities. However, research suggests that rewards actually stifle activities that require even rudimentary cognitive effort. Dr. Brooks talks about this research in his post on Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Be sure to also check out the inserted video – it is fascinating! The main point is that people tend to be most successful when they experience autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their (learning) activities. Having these three ingredients maximizes the intrinsic motivation that make learning its own reward.

Finally, your child or student’s success experiences may be hindered by a hidden learning disability. Having a learning disability can be extremely frustrating and can undermine even the most passionate student’s love of learning. If you suspect that your child or student may have a learning disability an assessment can be a great way to uncover helpful information about the child’s strengths and weaknesses and provide helpful recommendations that can maximize the child’s experiences of success.



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