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Learned Helplessness, and How We Can Overcome It

Jordan Catapano

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier observed a peculiar phenomenon in their 1967 laboratory—some dogs who had previously been given control over being electrically shocked were the same dogs who, when given an opportunity, would escape the shock in a second scenario.

Other dogs that had been given no control over being shocked were now the dogs who, when given the opportunity to jump over a low barrier to escape, would whimper in a corner and subject themselves to being shocked. Why didn’t this second set of dogs escape the electric shocks, when doing so would have been so easy?

The principle derived from experiments like this is called learned helplessness. When a being perceives that it has little to no control over a situation, it will apply the same thought process to later situations, even if they do have control.

In a student application, if a child believes that they have no control over their academic success or failure, then they – like the dogs getting shocked – would have little belief that they could improve their situation.

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Learned Helplessness in Students

Learned helplessness is a vicious cycle that reinforces itself. As students consistently perceive that there is nothing they can do to control their outcome, they make less and less of an attempt to do so. And as their effort dissipates, they fail.

A student who receives an “F” on several science tests might quickly begin thinking, “This is too hard,” “I’m no good at science,” or “I don’t like this subject anyway.” In future science classes, the student may feel like there is nothing he or she can do to be successful, and fail before they even try.

Worse still, this perception of helplessness might generalize toward all subjects eventually. Students say, “I’m stupid,” or “School is not for me.” These students often become the ones with behavioral challenges, learning disabilities, or the kids who rarely apply themselves.

Attribution for Success or Failure

One critical component of learned helplessness is what’s called “attribution,” which is who students give credit. If a student earns an “A” on a test, that student may attribute the success internally by saying, “I am smart” or “I studied hard.” The student might also attribute that success to an external component by saying, “The teacher graded easy” or “This material was too easy.”

Similarly, this happens with students who fail. “I didn’t study” or “I missed a few days of class” are examples of phrases students might say if they attribute their failure to a controllable element. These children might recognize what caused their failure and can thereby change their behavior to achieve success next time. The most dangerous and destructive attributions, however, are when students blame elements that are not within their control: “I’m just dumb” or “The teacher hates me” are phrases that adversely define the pupil, and make it seem as though the academic results will be the same in the future regardless of the circumstances.

How to Curtail Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is a psychological frame of mind which can be changed if the appropriate interventions are implemented. Here are a few that may help:

Focus on early stages of learning. It’s those early years that make the most difference. This is when the patterns are established and children learn their abilities. Effective elementary instructors need to identify any deficits or patterns and intervene with appropriate reinforcements for positive, academic behavior. The longer helplessness is established, the more difficult it may be to remove in later years.

Changing students’ attributions. When students blame themselves for their shortcomings, they have a tendency to hold themselves back from success. Educators can change students’ attributions, however, by providing encouraging feedback that targets deficient areas.

  • Ability Attributions: Teachers can praise, encourage, and reinforce a child’s innate ability to succeed at specific tasks along the lines of “You’re good at this.” If a student believes they are good at something, then they’ll apply themselves more in future opportunities.
  • Effort Feedback: Educators can also encourage students’ effort, indicating truths like, “If you study, you’ll do well on the test,” or “If you work hard, your effort will be rewarded.” Demonstrating that action will yield result is a powerful tool for young minds.

Goal setting: Realistically, achieving stellar grades and high standards might seem intimidating to some students who feel like they are incapable. That’s okay, and that’s where goal setting comes into play. Students should be led through a process of establishing reasonable goals that are unique to them instead of operating on a “one size fits all” scale. These unique goals are more likely to be achieved, and will encourage students to keep working in the future.

So when you witness a student throw in the towel, recognize that their motivation might be a result of learned helplessness. But whatever their past may have taught them, be a proactive educator who identifies the issue, gives appropriate coaching, and helps them set achievable goals!

What’s your story? How did you help that one student who just seemed like they had given up on themselves? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.