George Lucas Educational Foundation

What is Learned Helplessness?

What is Learned Helplessness?

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This is an excerpt from my article, “When Children Fail in School: What Teachers and Parents Need to Know about Learned Helplessness.” To read the complete article, plus part two, just click on the links at the bottom of this post. Learned helplessness is the belief that our own behavior does not influence what happens next, that is, behavior does not control outcomes or results. For example, when a student believes that she is in charge of the outcome, she may think, “If I study hard for this test, I’ll get a good grade.” On the contrary, a learned helpless student thinks, “No matter how hard I study for this test, I’ll always get a bad grade.” In schools, learned helplessness relates to poor grades and underachievement, and to behavior difficulties. Students who experience repeated school failure are particularly prone to develop a learned helpless response style. Because of repeated academic failure, these students begin to doubt their own abilities, leading them to doubt that they can do anything to overcome their school difficulties. Consequently, they decrease their achievement efforts, particularly when faced with difficult materials, which leads to more school failure. This pattern of giving up when facing difficult tasks reinforces the child’s beliefs that he or she cannot overcome his or her academic difficulties. Learned helplessness seems to contribute to the school failure experienced by many students with a learning disability. In a never-ending cycle, children with learning disabilities frequently experience school difficulties over an extended period, and across a variety of tasks, school settings, and teachers, which in turn reinforces the child’s feelings of being helpless. Articles in Learned Helplessness… When Children Fail in School: What Teachers and Parents Need to Know about Learned Helplessness When Children Fail in School Part Two: Teaching Strategies for Learned Helpless Students I cordially invite you to share your thoughts and ideas on this topic.

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Eugenia Papaioannou's picture
Eugenia Papaioannou
Head of Studies and EFL teacher at EDUC@TIONAL DYNAMICS Language Centre, author of ''Optimise your Teaching Competences - New Teaching Methodologies and CLIL Applications'', co-author of Culture Equity Model, ALMA-DC, 510658-LLP-1-2010-1-GR-GRUNDTVIG-GMP

Thank you for this article on 'Learned Helplessness'. It's food for thought.

In the teaching community we have encountered this type of learners, 'learned helpless'. Their attitude to learning, and consequent negative behaviour in class, is due to the fact that they come to education with the fixed idea that they will not influence their educational status no matter how hard they may try. This attitude is the result of prior experience they have gained in their family and social environment. The causes, in my view, are to be found in their family environment, among their peers and in the learning environment.

a. Influenced by the family:

The student more often than not does not receive any praise in his/her family environment for any of his/her small or big achievements. Adding to this, being exposed to lack of appreciation for good efforts, lack of targets for the future by his family members can instill in him/her the belief that no matter how hard efforts he/she can make he/she will not achieve much. These families are usually the ones who have not achieved much in their work or personal life.

b) Influenced by peers:

The student may have made friends with similar types of learners who inevitably share negative views thus regarding any efforts for progress useless. In this case they prefer to be more relaxed and be content with only superficial work at school which leads to more 'low achievement'. It is also common for a student to have been discouraged by classmates; malicious criticism, negative remarks, bullying can be the root of his/her attitude and behaviour.

c) Influenced by teachers:

The student may have received negative response by his/her teachers. It is not uncommon for teachers, who otherwise should support and encourage their learners towards progress, to send the wrong signals to some students: critical and non constructive remarks, wrong body language, biased behaviour.

The results of having received negative influences towards making good efforts in order to make progress are low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, lack of motivation, even harbouring resentment against learning.

What can we do in class to reverse this situation?

I am confident that we can do something to bridge the gap and incorporate this type of learners in our class. There are techniques that can assist us towards this objective, namely:

1. include these learners in group activities giving them leading roles from time to time;

2. use scaffolding techniques to facilitate learning at stages;

3. show and express appreciation of their efforts in public (in class);

4. praise their work: exhibit it together with other students' work / publish some of their work in the school newsletter;

5. delegate some responsibilities to these students in the class routine and/or during field trips;

6. be careful with your body language, encourage them and be consistent - don't lose heart.

We, teachers, need to do what we can to boost their self-esteem and self-confidence. In this way we can slowly but steadily reverse the situation of 'learned helplessness' and ameliorate these students' participation in learning.

Ron's picture
Director of Studies

Thank you Eugenia Papaioannou.

SebouhJack's picture

A lot of great points have been made about Learned Helplessness. I have worked in the field with children on the spectrum as a behavioral consultant for over 15 years. I have seen first hand how Learned helplessness begins to foster. It is not something that happens overnight. It is something that occurs gradually and often as a result of failed school experiences that these students begin to rely on others.
Some students who have experienced these failures and have learned helplessness can learn to be successful. The work of Educational Therapists provides students with and without learning disabilities tools to become more effective learners. Educational Therapists are trained in using the student's strengths in order to foster learning. Educational Therapists work to help the student foster autonomy.

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