Ride the Cycle of Success: Promoting Confidence in Children with Learning Difficulties

By Renee Irving-Lee, Children’s Book Author © 2018 Learning Links

In its simplest terms, learned helplessness can be defined as when a child learns over an extended period of time that they are helpless, powerless and unable. Children develop learned helplessness after repeated exposure to academic failure and perceived criticism from others. There is a direct correlation between school failures and learned helplessness. Many children with learning difficulties experience this on a regular basis and often have poor self-esteem and low confidence as a result. This is how the spiral of learned helplessness begins and then without intervention can ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Imagine just for a small moment that you are a child with learning difficulties. School has always been a big challenge and academic goals feel harder for you to reach compared to others. You become sensitive to criticism about your work and have experienced many academic failures, countless low grades and failed too many exams to mention. In your eyes, the past has taught you that you are helpless. The past has taught you that you are no good at school, and the past has taught you that there is no hope for the future.

With this mindset, your self-esteem plummets and you continue to fail, and this ultimately justifies and reinforces your feelings of learned helplessness. You feel like you are not in control of your own destiny, so you give up every time and just accept that school work is impossible for you to do. Sound familiar? Perhaps you are working with a child who is experiencing learned helplessness.

Children can experience feelings of learned helplessness in multiple contexts – it is not just limited to academic work. Academic work, however seems to be the area in which it can be most prevalent and problematic. Some children may experience learned helplessness in just one task or subject area, while others experience it in many. The signs of learned helplessness can vary in different individuals, but most children usually try to hide their feelings of inability and lack of control through various forms of negative behaviours.

Common signs of learned helplessness

The most common signs of learned helplessness include:

  • Lack of confidence and motivation
  • Lack of task persistence
  • Avoidance of certain tasks
  • Setting goals that are too easy
  • Avoidance behaviours and procrastination
  • Withdrawal
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Asking for more help then needed
  • Lack of independence
  • Becoming easily frustrated
  • Defining themselves as a failure

Teachers and parents have a profound effect on a student’s perceptions of their academic ability or individual capabilities. The adults in a child’s life are crucial to their self-esteem, motivation and academic achievement. Self-esteem and confidence are especially important to develop in children with learning difficulties as their experiences at school are often inconsistent and they can become increasingly uncertain of their own abilities. Teachers need to be aware of learned helplessness and how its impact can hinder students’ academic success. To break the cycle of learned helplessness and failure, teachers must help students regain a sense of control and encourage a cycle of success instead.

Tips for teachers to break the cycle of failure and encourage the cycle of success

  • Promote intrinsic or internal locus of control. Children with learning difficulties often have an external locus of control and can attribute any success to luck rather than effort. It is important for them to learn, recognise and acknowledge that effort increases skill.
  • Show sensitivity towards the child’s potentially debilitating interpretation of their own performance. Show understanding and empathy about how they are feeling, but also work through their performance in a realistic and positive way.
  • Build a positive relationship with the child. The connection between relationships and self- esteem is very clear. Children need strong bonds with significant adults in their life in order to feel safe, comfortable, and worthy. Meaningful learning cannot be achieved unless children feel this.
  • Recognise and identify signs of learned helplessness within the early stages, as it becomes much harder to break the cycle the longer it continues.
  • The best way to stop the learned helplessness cycle is to work through all areas of their life – the home, school and community. How can parents, teachers and community members work together to help?
  • Recognise and celebrate the smallest achievements or success and make links to how hard they have worked to achieve it.
  • Create an environment in which all students are expected to learn at high levels. This demonstrates to every child that you believe they have the potential to succeed. Have high expectations of what they can accomplish and provide the appropriate support and scaffolding to ensure they can achieve it.
  • Re-evaluate the level and type of support available to the child. Is the support helping or hindering their progress, confidence and mindset? Can you change things so that the child is working in an independent manner but still getting the scaffolding they need to succeed?
  • Model the self-talk process. Children in the learned helplessness spiral tend to speak in absolutes. Phrases like “I can’t do this” or “I’m never any good at this” are heard on a regular basis. Help them reframe this into positive talk. For example, “This work is hard, but I will keep trying”.
  • Focus on talent and skills they excel in and help them apply the same strategies into work they are having difficulty with. For example, if you have a student who is good at basketball but having trouble with their reading and will give up easily. Ask them questions like “What happens when you are playing basketball and you come up against a really good team? Do you stop playing altogether? What strategies do you use? How can we apply those strategies here?
  • Teach independence and problem-solving skills. Instead of suggesting a solution or leading them to the right answer, teach them skills that will help them solve problems on their own.
  • Find ways in which they can contribute to the class in a meaningful way. Children’s self-esteem can be nurtured when they feel like they have something of value to offer others.
  • Utilise a Strengths-Based approach.
  • Consider effects of ability grouping and withdrawing students for remedial classes.
  • Give praise for effort, not just for outcome.
  • Cultivate an environment where failure is a powerful learning tool. If children are encouraged to learn from their mistakes, they are more willing to try new and difficult tasks.

Learned helplessness is a vicious cycle that will reinforce itself repeatedly. If not addressed early, it can be the beginning of an avalanche of many negative life outcomes such as drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems, crime, and employment difficulties. As teachers, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to break the cycle of failure and encourage, support and scaffold children into a cycle of success instead. Within the classroom, teachers are responsible for providing adequate guidance and support to improve self-esteem, encourage intrinsic motivation and influence self-perceptions of academic capabilities.

The cycle of academic success begins with a positive mindset and a positive mindset begins with the teacher. Positivity breeds positivity. If we can help children achieve a new frame of mind, we can help change the way in which they view themselves and the way in which they view the world. This will lead to a small success at school, and an even more immeasurable success in life.

Where to go for more help

LD Online: Learned Helplessness and Attribution for Success and Failure in LD Students

Resiliency Initiatives: Embracing a Strengths Based Perspective and Practice in Education

Book: Rigor for Students with Special Needs