how to overcome learned helplessness in the classroom

Overcoming Learned Helplessness in the Classroom

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon where students believe they have no control over their success or failure in school. They feel powerless to change their situation, so they simply give up trying. This leads to poor motivation, underachievement and disengagement from learning. As teachers, it’s our job to counteract learned helplessness and empower students to take charge of their education. With the right strategies, you can transform your students from passive to active learners.

This comprehensive guide will provide everything you need to know to overcome learned helplessness in your classroom.

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness occurs when a student believes that their actions have no influence over the outcome. Even if they try their best, they think they will still fail or succeed only through luck. This mindset stems from repeated exposure to uncontrollable situations where their effort made no difference. Over time, students learn that they are helpless to affect change. They give up trying because they expect failure regardless of their actions.

Some key characteristics of learned helplessness include:

  • Belief that outcomes are independent of their efforts
  • Poor motivation and persistence on tasks
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of incompetence
  • Less willing to try new strategies or solutions when stuck
  • Passivity and lack of initiative

Learned helplessness is a form of emotional conditioning – students are conditioned to feel helpless based on their past experiences. Without intervention, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where students’ lack of effort leads to the very failure they expect.

Causes of Learned Helplessness

There are several potential causes of learned helplessness in the classroom:

1. String of failures or setbacks

When students repeatedly try and fail at a task, they can start to see failure as inevitable. For example, a student who struggles with math may get continually poor results despite hard work. Eventually they attribute failure to lack of innate math ability rather than effort.

2. Tasks too difficult

Assignments that are far above a student’s skill level can lead to helplessness. If activities are too hard, students receive the message that success is impossible for them. Even significant effort leads to failure, conditioning helplessness.

3. Lack of control or autonomy

Strict authoritarian teaching styles that don’t allow student input can foster helplessness. If students have no control over their learning process, they become passive recipients rather than active participants. With no autonomy, they doubt their ability to influence outcomes.

4. Over-reliance on teacher praise

Students who are highly dependent on teacher praise and recognition can become helpless when that praise is withdrawn. They equate praise to success and the lack of praise to failure. With no inner compass for evaluating their abilities, students feel they can only succeed when explicitly told they did well.

5. Attributional style

Students prone to making internal, fixed and global explanations for failure are at greater risk of learned helplessness. For example, “I failed because I’m stupid at math” is an internal, fixed, global attribution. This maladaptive thinking style contributes to feelings of helplessness.

6. Negative classroom environment

Classrooms with frequent punishment, social isolation, labeling or indifference can reinforce learned helplessness. If the environment continually signals to students that they lack competence or control, it validates their belief in their own helplessness.

Impact of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness significantly undermines student success and wellbeing:

  • Poor academic achievement: Students who believe they can’t succeed are unmotivated to put in effort. They underachieve relative to their true capabilities.
  • Skill deficits: Passivity hinders the development of problem-solving, self-regulation and other critical skills needed for success. Students fall further behind peers.
  • Negative behavior: Helpless students become frustrated, anxious, bored and disengaged. They may act out or self-handicap to protect perceived low competence.
  • Mental health issues: Continual failure and lack of control damages self-esteem. Students can develop depression, anxiety and other problems.
  • Higher dropout rates: Students see little value in persisting in an environment where they feel incapable. School dropout rates increase.

Reversing learned helplessness is critical not just for academic outcomes but for overall student mental health and development.

Signs of Learned Helplessness

As a teacher, how do you spot learned helplessness in your classroom? Look for these signs:

  • Giving minimal effort or avoiding work entirely
  • Not trying new strategies when stuck or complaining a task is too hard
  • Saying “I can’t do this” at the first sign of difficulty
  • Not taking initiative to complete work or relying heavily on teacher guidance
  • Refusing to try a task because they predict they will fail
  • Appearing frustrated, sad or bored during independent work time
  • Showing physical signs of stress like headache or stomachache when given academic tasks
  • Blaming failure on lack of ability rather than effort
  • Rejecting offers of help or new strategies as useless
  • Passively waiting for instructions rather than working independently

No single sign confirms learned helplessness. But if you notice multiple behaviors over time, it could indicate some students have developed a helpless orientation.

Strategies to Overcome Learned Helplessness

The good news is learned helplessness can be unlearned! It requires redirecting students’ thinking and equipping them with the skills for self-determined success. Here are the most effective strategies for overcoming learned helplessness:

1. Growth Mindset Interventions

Students with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is immutable. This contributes to helpless thinking because they see failure as evidence they permanently lack ability.

Teach a growth mindset – the belief that intelligence can be developed through effort. Make it clear that the brain grows stronger through practice, like a muscle. Failures are opportunities to improve, not proof of fixed flaws.

Deliver targeted growth mindset interventions:

  • Explain neuroplasticity – how new neural pathways form in the brain during learning.
  • Highlight examples of skills and talents being built up over time through diligent work.
  • Praise effort and perseverance rather than intelligence.
  • Encourage students to relish challenges that help their brains grow.
  • Use motivating real-life stories, role models and quotations about the power of grit.

2. Provide process praise

Process praise focuses on the specific actions students took that led to success. For example, “I see you took the time to edit your work, which has greatly improved your writing!”

This shows students that success is driven by controllable factors like effort and strategies, rather than innate talent they either possess or don’t. Helpless students realize they can influence outcomes.

3. Break tasks into smaller steps

Large, complex assignments overwhelm helpless students. Chunk assignments down into mini-objectives:

  1. Read the science experiment
  2. Understand key concepts
  3. Form hypothesis
  4. Design experiment
  5. Collect data
  6. Analyze data
  7. Draw conclusions

Offer praise and feedback at each step so students gain confidence. Celebrate small wins!

4. Use peer models

Peers can positively model determination and perseverance. Pair helpless students with slightly more advanced “buddies” to work on projects together. The “helper” role builds confidence while the buddy models effective learning behaviors:

  • Trying new strategies when stuck
  • Regulating frustration and seeking solutions
  • Putting in maximum focused effort

5. Offer choices

Provide task choices to increase helpless students’ sense of control. For example, let students select:

  • Which assignment to complete first
  • Who to work with
  • How to present or design a project
  • Where in the classroom to work

Even small acts of choice help students take ownership over learning.

6. Develop success experiences

Ensure students regularly experience meaningful success. Assign tasks slightly below current competence levels and provide high encouragement. Slowly increase challenge as students gain greater mastery. Frequent successful experiences rebuild beliefs in their capabilities.

7. Teach optimistic thinking

Help students reframe negative self-talk and adopt a more optimistic explanatory style:

  • Temporary vs. permanent causes
  • Specific vs. universal causes
  • Changeable vs. unchangeable causes

If a student says “I’m terrible at math” teach them to reframe it:

“I’m still learning this math concept, but I can master it with more time and effort.”

8. Assign leadership roles

Assign classroom jobs or leadership roles like project manager, tech assistant, materials captain etc. Make sure helpless students get responsibilities and rotate roles frequently. When students gain confidence managing roles that impact others, they recognize their own power to affect situations.

9. Teach study strategies

Helpless students need explicit instruction in study strategies like:

  • Time management
  • Note taking
  • Mnemonic techniques
  • Self-quizzing
  • Research skills

As they gain concrete learning skills, students grow more confident in their ability to positively impact outcomes.

10. Set realistic goals

Involve students in setting their own academic goals based on their current skill level and pace of growth. Goals should be:

  • Specific and measurable – “I will complete 5 long division problems in under 5 minutes with 80% accuracy.”
  • Proximal – reachable in the very near future. This builds momentum.
  • Collaborative – jointly agreed upon by teacher and student.

Use goals to track and celebrate growth frequently.

Tips for Teachers

As you implement strategies to address learned helplessness, keep these tips in mind:

  • Be patient – it takes time to undo learned attitudes and behaviors
  • Applaud all progress, not just end results
  • Foster warm teacher-student relationships
  • Collaborate with parents, counselors, and the student on interventions
  • Build peer support systems
  • Advocate a growth mindset for yourself as a teacher as well! Your own self-efficacy impacts students.

Signs of Student Improvement

With consistent effort, you will see changes in students’ motivation, confidence and achievement. Signs of improvement include:

  • Increased class participation and questions
  • More time on task and less task avoidance
  • Willingness to attempt challenging tasks
  • Using new strategies when stuck rather than giving up
  • More positive self-talk and risk taking
  • Taking initiative and leadership in group work
  • Feeling pride and satisfaction in accomplishments rather than dismissing success as luck
  • Enjoyment and excitement about learning!

Conclusion and FAQ

By understanding the psychology behind learned helplessness and applying research-backed strategies, you can empower even your most discouraged students. With your guidance, they will adopt new beliefs about their ability to learn, grow, and succeed.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about learned helplessness:

How can I convince rigidly helpless students to buy in to interventions?

  • Start very small – offer choices in simple, low-stakes daily tasks first. This builds trust in their control.
  • Involve the student in setting their goals so they have ownership.
  • Share stories of students with similar challenges who turned things around – positive role models provide hope.
  • Be patient and focus on the relationship first. The student needs to know you care about them before they will be open to change.

What if interventions don’t seem to be working?

  • Reflect on whether you have given it enough time. Undoing learned helplessness takes months or years, not days or weeks. Stick with it!
  • Consider whether assignments are still too far beyond current competence. Further breakdown tasks into smaller successes the student can achieve right now.
  • diagnose whether your classroom environment could be contributing to helpless feelings. Increase warmth, care, and student autonomy.
  • Request guidance from a school counselor or psychologist. They may recommend more rigorous interventions.

How can I prevent learned helplessness from developing in the first place?

  • Teach a strong growth mindset starting day 1. Make neurological learning and the power of “yet” core messages.
  • Use cooperative learning structures where each student has an essential role. Celebrate collective success.
  • Foster a warm, caring classroom climate focused on relationship building. Make sure each student feels valued.
  • Intervene at the first signs of frustration and teach constructive coping techniques. Don’t allow small struggles to escalate into major helpless events.

With persistence and care, you can help students overcome learned helplessness for good. They will thank you for believing in them until they learned to believe in themselves. Keep the faith!