Guest Author - Diane Miller
Learned helplessness was first studied during research conducted by Martin E. P. Seligman M.D. in the 1960’s. In relation to education, it is a condition where the child has learned to be helpless in certain situations after experiencing negative results, in spite of their efforts.
Since every child sees and responds to the same situation differently, not every child is equally as vulnerable. For those who are, it can be catastrophic for their entire academic career.
To understand it better, lets think about art class. We all understand that children have different levels of natural talent. Even though we adore every piece of precious handiwork that our child creates, we can agree that some are better suited to stick figures, while others have a more broad level of creativity.
Now imagine that upon completion of their latest masterpiece, one receives a less than stellar response. The other children point, laugh, and make rude remarks. How will the child respond? One may merely chime in and laugh at it too. Another may get angry, deciding that it was the teachers’ fault for refusing to give him the additional paint that he requested. Still, a different child may completely break down, refusing to try anything to do with art ever again!
Now apply the same concept to other areas. Just like natural levels of creativity, children also have different skill levels in other areas. Some may be superior readers, but have poor motor skills. Some may excel in math, but struggle in English.
These skill levels can vary for multiple reasons, including learning disorders that have been identified or those that have not. Just like in art class, the lasting effects can vary depending on the way the child interprets and responds to the negative situation.
Consider a child with a learning disability that has gone undetected, is misunderstood, or mishandled. Think about the possible outcome for these children who are vulnerable for developing learned helplessness.
As the child’s’ grades deteriorate, the teacher may become frustrated. She feels he has been given the same instruction as the other children. He has been given equal, and sometimes more, time for completion. He has no history of academic problems; He is simply being obstinate and lazy. He must be lacking discipline at home.
She keeps him in for recess and makes him complete his assignments. Other students begin to tease him on the bus, calling him “stupid”. The child barely squeaks by, but is promoted to the next grade. His struggles continue, but this year they are worse. Not only is he still affected by the primary problem, but also his skills have failed to progress to the level for the current curriculum. The heckling continues.
Meanwhile, the child really has been putting forth a great deal of effort. In spite of it, he continues to get poor grades. Eventually, he decides that he is, in fact, stupid and therefore, any extra effort on his part is futile. He begins acting inappropriately at school and shows signs of depression.
Based on the situation, combined with his personal style of interpretation, he has developed the belief that he is powerless to make any change for himself and stops trying. If a child is allowed to get to this point it, can be extremely difficult to stop the downhill spiral that ensues.
If you feel your child is at risk for developing learned helplessness, act immediately. Discuss your concerns with his teachers and develop ways to counter it. Test for any additional underlying issues that may not have been discovered. Make sure that his teacher understands his specific issues and can provide effective teaching strategies that do not reinforce the students feelings of hopelessness. When it comes to learned helplessness, the best defense is a good offense.
For more information on Learned Helplessness, as well as other factors that impact you child's academic success, I recommend: