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.
The most common signs of learned helplessness include:
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.
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.
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