Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

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 students 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 [next page]



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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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