Learned helplessness in the classroom – What teachers can do

I’m about 20 minutes into a class with 28 science students. We’re investigating electric circuits and how current, voltage and resistance influence each other and I’ve done a bit of theory in the class already, explaining the what happens with an animation and an analogy and a little bit of drilling (the voltage pushes the current, the current carries energy and the resistor slows down the flow of current).

The students have just been given a worksheet to see if they can explain what happens in several electric circuits. They’re expected to complete the worksheet alone and then compare their answers with 3 other students and present their understanding back to the class. It seemed like a good class plan. In fact, it had worked very well in previous years with students of different abilities, but this year there are two students in the class with their heads laying on their desk. They are unwilling to work.

I encourage them once, twice, three times; “Come on, get a start of the work. It should be no problem to you”. No success! I become more assertive; “Time to start working. Pick up the pen, read through the situations and write down what you think in the space provided”. Still no success.

So I decide to let them be. After all it’s there decision to work or not, right!?

This happened ten years ago and since then my attitude has changed. It’s taken me ten years to change, but I’ve managed to do it by researching a whole host of theories, strategies and concept; from resilience, to positive psychology, to growth mindset and now learned helplessness.

You see, these students were engaging in learned helplessness. Put simply, it is similar to a form of depressive behaviour in people when they believe they cannot influence a negative situation or event in their lives.

If you’d like to know more, keep reading and I’ll fill you in on what it is, what it looks like in the classroom and intervention strategies to deal with it.

In more depth

Learned helplessness occurs when a person begins to accept that their pain, abuse, victimisation or problematic situation is unavoidable and uncontrollable, even though it may actually be escapable. When feeling this way, the person believes that influencing the outcome of the problematic event is impossible, so they don’t even try.

It is a cycle, where the individual experiences undesirable or aversive events and then, having developed a ‘perceived’ lack of control over these events, later leads to a firm belief of helplessness regarding such events. It is often characterised by phobias, depressions, lack of motivation, low self-esteem, and negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety and frustration.

What does it look like in the classroom?

Learned helplessness is a vicious cycle in students; those who feel they are unable to succeed are unlikely to put much effort into it, which leads to even less success, and less motivation and effort. Even more worrying is that it has the potential to lead to a more generalised sense of helplessness in which the student has no motivation or belief in their ability to learn any subject at school.

The following is a list of typical behaviours exhibited by students that have engaged in earned helplessness. It has been collected from numerous sources, although it is not an exhaustive list.

1. A belief that their actions and behaviours in school will not effect their grades/results/teacher attitudes towards them. You might hear students say; “It doesn’t matter what I study, I’ll never get (desired grade)”, “I’ve been studying for the year and it didn’t matter. What’s the point!?” or “The teacher doesn’t like me so I’ll never get a good grade”.

2. Lack of confidence in their skills and abilities (low self-efficacy expectations). A belief that they are of low intelligence, even when they are not. For this belief, you might hear; “I’m stupid”, “Ill never get it”.

3. Underestimating their performance when they do well in school e.g. “The test was easy”, “I was lucky to get that grade” or “The teacher graded easy”.

4. Generalising failure from one situation to another, or from one experience to another, or expecting failure all the time. You might hear; “I failed maths, I bet I’m going to fail everything else” or “I tried for the English paper and failed, I have no chance in passing the science test”, “I just can’t understand algebra. I’m really bad at maths” or “School is not for me”.

1. The student is unmotivated to learn and have limited aspirations to succeed in school. You might here something like; “what’s the point of this subject!?” “There’s no reason to be in school”

2. Being passive in school, which leads to a decrease in performance and grades. This includes a reluctance to seek assistance or help when they are having difficulty performing an task, or simply zoning out during class work.

3. Giving up and procrastination, particularly when faced with challenges. In this instance the student try to delay when they start to work, or they may start to engage and seek distraction or lose interest quickly. A consequence of this is that students experience a decrease in their ability to solve problems. These are the types of students that need constant reminders to become re-engaged in the work.

Another aspect of this is when students give up after receiving feedback or not receiving praise. In this instance it is likely that the student has linked successful outcomes with their own self-worth. Constructive feedback is then be taken as a negative reflect of who they are as an individual.

The final perspective on this is when a student immediately asks for help when given work to do in class, rather than persisting for some time to solve the problem or complete the work.

4. Frustration. This can be expressed aggressive or passive behaviour (as described above).

What strategies can we use in the classroom to deal with learned helplessness?

1. Creating a low-anxiety environment
Encourage risk in the classroom, where students feel comfortable with making an effort and learning from their mistakes. Teaching students that learning through mistakes is important for their improvement and learning is also important.

This also includes seeing students as learners with diverse skills, strengths and areas of need. Teachers can provide direct feedback to students on their strengths and areas for improvement, to encourage their growth within the classroom.

Such feedback however needs to be SMART;
S – Specific: Identifies exactly what the student need to achieve to improve
M – Measurable: if the student carries out the changes, they can see an immediate improvement in their grade
A – Achievable: Feedback should be at a level appropriate to the student’s immediate potential. It should stretch them a little, challenge them a little and encourage growth.
R – Right now: – It should request the changes are made within a short timeframe e.g. that night or over that weekend.
T – Transferrable: The skills learned should be transferrable to other activities, homework or classwork so the student can use them again.

2. Teach students a growth mindset
A growth mindset is the belief that ability and intelligence is incremental, not fixed from birth, and focused effort is essential to improve. Ideally students should be taught what a growth mindset is and should be encouraged to engage in it’s use repeatedly. To reinforce this, teachers can provide encouragement that is based on effort, not outcome (“Your hard work paid off for this test”).

Questioning students on how they think they can improve (goals) and then assisting them on creating strategies to improve (steps to achieving the goals) is also important. Goals being set should be realistic for the student, and students should have a very specific set of steps laid out for them if they want to achieve them.

3. Changing a Pessimistic perspective to an Optimistic one
Have students take credit for their successes, skills and abilities, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential to the teacher. Leverage these successes, skills and abilities to encourage students to take on new material and more challenging work.

The flip side of this is to have students challenge any self-blame they create when their shortcomings are identified. Prominent psychologist Carol Dweck’s use of the word Yet has been shown to help here e.g. student states “I can’t do it” so the teacher restates the same sentence, with yet at the end, “I can’t do it, Yet”.

The goal with this and the idea of growth mindset is to change a students view of the difficult situation from one that is permanent and unchanging to one that is temporarily difficult, but ultimately can be progressed beyond.

Reminding students of past successes also applies here, demonstrating to the student that the difficulties they face are specific to a particular aspect of school, or the subject, rather than to all of school or even themselves.

4. Teaching students strategies to succeed
Success alone is not going to help a student with learned helplessness, because they may attribute their success to other factors (“The teacher marked it easily”). Instead they need strategies to overcome the difficulties they are facing. Such strategies need to be modelled by someone else and then carried out by the student themselves to verify that they work and can be applied. In other words, we are giving students the tools needed to develop and maintain the perception that they have the resources to succeed and reverse failure. Strategies may include where to find answers to questions, when to discuss strategies with peers, how to approach a maths problem, or how to interpret an exam question and then how to answer it.

The goal here is to change a students view of the difficult situation from one that is outside of their control to one that they have some control over.

As a teacher, you will need to identify the strategies that you use, the ones that will help your student and how best to present it to them. However, I would suggest using the Gradual release of responsibility model to teach strategies, skills, actions and behaviours to students and encourage them to become independent users of such strategies.

This is carried out in four stages;

  1. Teacher does, student watches
  2. Teacher and student do it together
  3. Students do it together, teacher provides assistance if required
  4. Students do it together, or alone without teacher guidance or assistance

Research shows that having students develop individualised short-terms goals as a reminder to use particular learning strategies is also beneficial to their progress away from learned helplessness. It has also shown that reminding students of their success with using these strategies can be beneficial in reinforcing their usefulness and encouraging their future use.

5. Clear instruction, expectations and assessment
Provide students with clear and explicit instructions or directions for academic tasks. These may include oral and written instructions and/or demonstrating to students what they need to do step-by-step. Seek clarification from students that they understand what to do, and the steps necessary to do it.

This also applies to student assessments. When requesting work from students provide them with an exemplar of performance and the rubric/standard/marking scheme you will use to grade the work. This allows students to see what is required of them and allows them to evaluate their own work before the teacher assesses it.

6. Focus on the present, not the past
Learned helplessness is formed from past experiences. Research has shown that giving students activities that focus on the present and having them relate to what is going on at that time can distract their brain from the negative self-thinking that created their learned helplessness. Such activities, identified in the research, include breathing exercises, spelling words backwards and focusing on using all of the senses while carrying out an activity (the research suggests doing this while eating some chocolate).

This also means that teachers need to focus on the current actions and effort that the student is engaging in, not the actions in previous classes.

To finish

The research on learned helplessness has shown that interventions are more successful if it is identified early on in an individual. They have also found that it may be more difficult to intervene in later years, and that there is a correlation between those that experienced learned helplessness as a child and those that experience depression in adulthood.

Do you have any experiences with learned helplessness in your classroom?