Educators have long advocated for reframing “failure” positively as a “learning opportunity,” but when failure becomes so normal and expected in a student’s life that it causes abject resignation, it leads to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a psychological condition associated with feelings of lost control, and it creates students who disengage from effort, even if the effort is within reach and will clearly lead to success.
This phenomenon develops early, so it’s critical that elementary educators have an understanding and awareness of the condition. Educators of older students also should be knowledgeable about learned helplessness, since it has a detrimental influence on academic performance and mental well-being, as demonstrated in a 2007 video of an experiment that shows college-age adults giving up on a classroom task in just 10 to 15 minutes.
Learned Helplessness in the Classroom
Learned helplessness often starts early in a child’s life, through unresponsive caregivers (with institutionalized children, for example). Schools may exacerbate this condition, through untrustworthy adults or practices that perpetuate a pessimistic mindset that feeds into the cycle of learned helplessness.
These school- and classroom-based practices may come from good intentions, such as over-scaffolding (not allowing students the opportunity to at least try to work on a problem, by providing help to the point of almost doing the work for the child), that nonetheless can lead to the condition.
Examples of how learned helplessness may manifest in the classroom include the following:
- Refusal to accept help, even if the teacher repeatedly offers it
- Frustration leading to easily giving up
- Disengagement from effort
- Lack of motivation
- Diminished self-worth and self-efficacy (such as providing a myriad of reasons why solutions will not work)
It’s critical to examine what messages students receive from failure—how do children explain failure, and do educators perpetuate this explanation? For example, how does a teacher react when a student makes an error? Is the classroom an environment where teachers not only expect errors but also celebrate mistakes as opportunities to learn? If students internalize the message that failure is permanent, pervasive, and personal, learned helplessness may likely result.
How to Manage Learned Helplessness
Teachers can address learned helplessness from an equity lens—students who are struggling, and have been struggling for a long time and given up, deserve more attention—and yet most of the strategies that target learned helplessness will actually help all students. There are a few things you can do.
Examine your grading practices: Do you believe that handing out zeros motivates students? If so, it may be time to rethink that practice. No student has ever been motivated by a zero. Another policy to examine is redos and retakes. Not allowing for opportunities to try again may be sending the message that a failure is final and permanent.
Normalize and celebrate failure: Have you tried My Favorite No as a strategy? This approach teaches that without failure, we don’t learn. Teachers can also model how to appropriately respond to failure and share stories of famous scientists and inventors who successfully reframed failure as opportunities to learn and discover. The stories of Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and 15-year-old Jake Andraka are useful narratives about the value of failure and resilience.
Praise and encourage the effort, not the perceived intrinsic ability of the student: “I can tell how much effort that took—congratulations!” instead of “You’re really brilliant at math.” This is important because it reframes success as the result of effort, not because of an already existing, intrinsic ability. Examine your language. Hang posters in your room that emphasize effort over perceived ability, and reference them constantly when teaching and providing feedback. Another strategy is to place sticky notes around the teacher workspace with reminders like these: “Emphasize effort,” “Praise diligence,” and “Normalize failure!”
Model an optimistic mindset: Grab every opportunity to show that academic failure isn’t personal, pervasive, or permanent. Failure isn’t forever. Model how to appropriately cope with failure by using it as a launch-off point for learning. Ever caught yourself teaching something erroneous or making a mistake? Well, what a great opportunity to recognize the error, perhaps laugh at it, and celebrate it by declaring, “Now that we know what method does not work, let’s explore effective ones!”
Work with students to set bite-size goals, and celebrate in a big way when they achieve each goal: With a big project, have a checklist that empowers students to start small and see progress at each step. Provide a collection of accessible resources (e.g., visual dictionary, caring adults, websites, a peer coach) for students as they are working on their goals.
The antidote to learned helplessness is realistic optimism. If children can learn helplessness, they can learn realistic optimism. It’s critical that students (and the teachers who care for them) adopt a mindset that fosters hope, gratitude, and resilience. From an equity lens, those who lack access to resources also often lack the optimistic belief that success is attainable. Where there is hope and optimism, there is the belief that students’ efforts are all worthwhile.