Harry Wong
November 2014
Vol 11 No 11

Dealing with Learned Helplessness

By Barbara Blackburn and Dr. Bradley Witzel

Co-written with Dr. Bradley Witzel, Associate Professor for Students with Special Needs, Winthrop University

HelplessLearned helplessness is a process of conditioning where student seek help from others even when they have mastered information. See if this example looks familiar:

A student is asked to solve a direct reading comprehension problem, but he immediately raises his hand. When the teacher comes over, the student says he needs help. So the teacher reads the paragraph to the student and re-explains the question. The student still doesn’t answer the question. Next, the teacher re-explains a regularly used comprehension strategy with the student. Finally, the teacher walks through the strategy and may even solve the problem for the student.

While this scenario sounds justifiable, and maybe even familiar, the teacher is reinforcing the student’s learned helplessness. This exchange undermines the student’s independent ability to solve the problem. Such exchanges that continue a student’s learned helplessness include an increased time of completion, lack of academic perseverance, refusal to initiate an attempt, or general off-task behavior. Thus, once a student has begun a run of learned helplessness, expect to see the outcomes repeatedly. In the scenario above, the student must learn to attend to the teacher’s group instruction and attempt to solve problems.

Instead of running to the rescue of students who can succeed without us or even refuse to help such students, it is important to find ways to teach students to gain independence in their problem-solving. In other words, find out why the student is behaving in a certain way and plan a response that best builds academic success and independence. One way to help is to teach students how to learn and succeed without instantly making excuses and asking for help by following these steps.

1)   Determine if learned helplessness exists

2)   Explicitly model the student the preferred academic behavior

3)   Teach the student a strategy for displaying the preferred academic behavior

4)   Provide practice for the strategy

5)   Set a cue to remind the student to initiate the strategy

6)   Allow the student to succeed

7)   Facilitate the student’s problem solving strategy

Let’s use the following scenario to discuss each step.

In a middle school history class, students are working desperately to understand a passage on George Washington. However, Annie hasn’t yet begun the assignment. Instead, she rifles through papers and makes grunting sounds of exasperation. The teacher taps Annie’s desk as she walks by. Annie rolls her eyes and waves her hand high in a frantic motion like one would make to catch a cab during a rainstorm. The teacher, however, ignores Annie and continues to work with small groups of students. Intermittently, she encourages students who are putting forth effort towards the difficult reading. Annie, irritated that she is being ignored, yells out, “You don’t care about me!” (Note: What might look like an insensitive teacher to a passerby is actually a part of an organized effort by school personnel to help Annie overcome learned helplessness. In her IEP, school personnel and Annie’s mother agreed to ignore Annie’s outbursts when she does not exert effort towards completion of a task).

A few minutes after Annie’s outburst, she opens her book and begins to work. The teacher goes over to Annie, leans down, and praises Annie for attempting the assignment. She then reminds Annie that she cannot respond to her when she displays such outbursts, let alone when does not show effort towards the assignment. The teacher also clarifies with Annie the expectation during independent practice. The next five minutes are spent by Annie going over the passage so that she understands the information.

The teacher followed the learned helplessness plan as indicated below.

1)   Determine if learned helplessness exists

The team already determined that Annie’s behavior is purposeful and meant to avoid independent work in order to work with the teacher. The behavior occurs in several classes when independent reading is assigned. Although Annie can now read near grade level, she spent several years below grade level and has learned to seek help even if she doesn’t need it.

2)   Explicitly model the preferred academic behavior

Teachers have been asked to praise students in class who independently work on assignments. Annie has been asked to watch others’ efforts in class to provide a model for what is expected of her.

3)   Teach the student a strategy for displaying the preferred academic behavior

Prior to this class, the special education and general education teachers have explained what is expected and how she can gain assistance. The first requirement to receiving help is to show effort for a minimum of 3 minutes. Then she will be allowed to ask the teacher for help. The number of minutes required to work independently is set to be increased by one minute for each week.

4)   Provide practice for the strategy

Last week, Annie practiced the strategy of showing effort for 3 minutes. It was important that Annie understand what she should be doing as her replacement behavior.

5)   Set a cue to remind the student to initiate the strategy

The cue set by her teachers was a tap on her desk as the teacher walked by. The teacher would not stop by her desk to talk so as to minimize reinforcement for the behavior.

6)   Allow the student to succeed

The teacher did not give in to Annie’s demand. Instead, she ignored the inappropriate behavior. When Annie showed 3 minutes of effort, she immediately went to help Annie for 5 minutes. The 5 minutes of help is Annie’s incentive for working.

7)   Facilitate the student’s problem solving strategy

The teacher followed through with the plan and reminded Annie of the strategy.

A Final Note

Overcoming learned helplessness, particularly late in her academic career will be difficult for Annie. The teacher followed the steps appropriately but must remain consistent in her approach with Annie in order to help Annie perform more independently. Likewise, Annie’s other teachers must remain as diligent in their strategy with Annie.  The same is true with your students—helping them overcome learned helplessness takes time and effort, but is worth the investment.

Also by Barbara Blackburn

Rigor and the Common Core

Motivating Your Students to Succeed

Shaping the Culture of Your School: 4 Tools for Leaders

Academic Rigor (Transcript of live chat)

Blackburn picAbout the authors

Barbara is a best-selling author of 14 books, including Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word.   A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development.  Barbara can be reached through her website: or her blog:

Dr. Bradley Witzel is Associate Professor for Students with Special Needs, Winthrop University

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This entry was posted on Saturday, March 1st, 2014 and is filed under *ISSUES, Barbara Blackburn and Bradley Witzel, Mar 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
Teachers.Net Gazette Vol.11 No.3 March 2014

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