When we receive calls from parents, we frequently hear them telling us not only about their child’s struggle with academic performance, but also their emotional struggles in the classroom. Frequently comments are made like, “He’s lazy”, or “He is just not trying hard enough.” But many times these behaviors are an indicator that there is a larger problem at work. If not addressed, the child may experience learned helplessness. When does learned helplessness occur? What does learned helplessness look like? Learned helplessness occurs when a student experiences continual failure at academic tasks. This continued failure may also lead to withdrawal in the classroom, an unwillingness to attempt new tasks and a lack of persistence with task completion. External factors may also influence how helpless the student perceives himself to be. If the student is in a classroom where individual achievements are measured against the achievements of others, the student will be continually faced with his failures and that feeling of helplessness will multiply. If the student is in an environment in which the commonly held belief is that intelligence is static, then the student will not see any purpose in changing his beliefs about himself. If the student is continually “rescued” or released from responsibility, he learns to behave accordingly. Parents may see emotional changes in their child. The child may start to show signs of not liking or not wanting to go to school. The child may cry or find other ways to keep from doing homework. The child frequently looks to others for assistance, seems “lazy’ or lacks motivation.
Here in our clinic we meet students who are dealing with learned helplessness. Here is one example. “Sam” is a student I worked with recently. He was receiving treatment in our clinic for language comprehension difficulties. His parents reported that he was not only struggling with academics, but also exhibiting some behavioral aspects of learned helplessness. He was not interacting in class activities and teachers were reporting that he “just wasn’t trying.” His grades were slipping. Getting homework completed at home was becoming a daily struggle. In the early stages of his treatment, it was easy to see how Sam used his learned behaviors to try to divert from the activity. Sam and I were working on imaging a story about people making the largest sandwich in the world for a fundraiser. He was having some difficulty generating images and forming language, so I presented him with some choice questions. As I finished my first choice option, he agreed that this would be correct. His behavior tells me that in past experience, when he gives an answer (incorrect or correct), he expects that the questioning will finish and he will be released from the pressure of thinking. I then gave him the second choice question, and again, he selected it as the correct response. When prompted to consider which choice might best fit the scenario of the story, Sam was able to make a choice and back it up with some images and language that were logical for the story. By continued questioning and support, Sam was learning how to retrain his brain and become active in his education, thereby overcoming the “learned helplessness” and taking charge of his learning.
The language we use with our children as parents and teachers can send messages that lead them to feel successful or defeated. Sometimes, we may not be aware this is happening. We can be coddling of the child, but unintentionally send a message that encourages helplessness. One example might be, “Well sweetie, I know that answering those homework questions is hard for you, so I’ll just give you the answers.” This lets the child know that there is a difficulty that cannot be changed, and therefore, attempts need not be tried. The child also might be unintentionally presented with damaging language, “Listen, I know you know this, so just read it again. You can answer those questions.” Again, the child hears that his struggles make him different. He also hears he is not giving enough effort when he knows he is trying his best. Supportive language informs and involves the child and prepares him for changes that will lead him to success, “Hey buddy, I understand you are struggling with reading and this is no fun. We are going to train your brain to notice things so you can learn to read successfully. It’s going to work out, but it will take some work.”
Whatever the reasons are that a student may experience learned helplessness, there are steps to be taken that can help move the student to a more positive, active frame of mind, where learning and a positive attitude lead to success. Early intervention is critical and ideal. Is there a learning difficulty that is preventing the student from learning at the same rate as his peers? If the student is identified early and taught intensively using best practices, the onslaught of learned helplessness can be stopped. It is important to note that it is worthwhile to intervene at any time. When the intervention is appropriate, explicitly systematic, and intensive, the student can make gains and overcome the learned helplessness to make great academic achievements.
Students exhibiting learned helplessness should be placed in an environment where it is possible to experience academic success. Working in a group of peers where the student measures himself by the success of others exacerbates the feelings of helplessness. It is important to help the student learn how to recognize when he is being successful, understand and be able to use the skills he already has in place. Then the student is ready to build upon those skills, experiencing success while learning things he previously thought too difficult. If the student is experiencing significant learning difficulties, it may be necessary to explore his educational options in order to find the most supportive learning environment, thus decreasing the negative influences and introducing success. Removing the child from the“competitive” environment will most certainly relieve some of the stress the child feels. But leaving a student in a“supportive learning environment” for years can have the same negative effect on his sense of independence, ability and hope as leaving him in the“competitive” environment.
So let’s get back to Sam. First he started to realize that I was not going to feed the answers to him, but that I would be there to ask him guiding questions to aid in his decision-making. By breaking down the tasks, providing the appropriate questioning and encouraging his successes, he was soon beginning to work more independently. He started making connections to his background knowledge. Next he started applying logical thinking to make inferences and see the big picture. Soon his parents were telling us that his“helpless” behaviors at home and at school were changing and his grades were starting to improve. By retraining his brain, Sam was able to leave behind a self-defeating behavior and replace it with one that led him to success.