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Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Regina Toscani's picture
Overcoming Learned Helplessness


Premise: For Inquiry-Based Education to be successful, all students need to be actively engaged in the process.

Questions: Why are some students not engaged/active learners? Can these passive learners become active learners?

Objectives: To identify one possible reason some children are passive learners; to explore what interventions would be useful to encourage these children to become more engaged, using a hierarchy of needs model.

Disclaimers: The terms “engaged” and “active”, for the purpose of this web page, will be considered to have the same meaning. This web page should be view only as the beginning of the conversation about passive students. 



         Differences between Passive and Engaged Learners



1)Active learners are thinking and connecting ideas. Passive learners listen and memorize.

2) Active learners use new knowledge to solve problems. Passive learners spit out memorized facts to pass a test.

3)Active learners question new knowledge. Passive learners accept new knowledge as truth.

4)Active learners are engage in the education process. Passive learners are simply spectators.


Why Do Some Students Become Passive?


What makes a student become a passive learner? While there can be several reasons I want to focus on Learned Helplessness. Basically stated, learned helplessness is a state of mind that a person can exhibit, when that person has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for him/her to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which he/she has been subjected. I propose that a student will exhibit this behavior when constantly experiences failure. Initially this student will make attempts, but if the only outcome is negative, then the child will no longer make any attempts.


When a student feels that nothing he/she can do will make a difference and only experience failure in school, does it not make sense to expect that child to become passive? 


The following passage is taken from the website, which is an article titled, “Learned Helplessness and Attribution for Success and Failure in LD Students” by Nicki G. Arnold (1996)

·         Learned helplessness has detrimental effects on children. They develop a lack of self-confidence in challenging tasks which result in deterioration of performances(Dweck, Davidson, Nelson, & Enna, 1978). These children also use poor solving strategies; their attention wanders and they feel that they are struggling for nothing. This might even put learned helpless children behind a grade or two in academic subjects and damper their social skills. In the end, they get a message that they are worthless and hopeless (Berger, 1983). They feel incompetent and unable to master any new material or task. Learned helpless children "know" that they are failures and will not think otherwise.

·         There is more to understanding of learned helplessness than its definition and characteristics. Intrinsic motivation (Stipek, 1988) is innate; a natural propensity to engage one’s interest and exercise one’s capacities. Intrinsic motivation effects the developing child’s experiences in three ways: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. With learned helpless children competence is almost entirely destroyed. They lose confidence within themselves because they experience failures, leading them to believe they are failures. They might feel competent about something at first but if they fail in that activity they won't bother to try it again for fear of failure. Autonomy is also faint in a learned helpless student’s life. They feel as though they have no control over their environment because no matter how hard they tried in the past, they never succeeded. As for relatedness, learned helpless students feel as though they don’t belong because they believe that they don't relate to the environment.

·         Learned helpless students might be intrinsically motivated at first, but if they fail at the task than they become uninterested and are intimidated in subjecting themselves to do the task again in the future. Their curiosity dissolves as well. The optimal challenge is lost and it seems to this type of person as if it is not available in the environment for them, they will not try to seek out solutions. They lose their desire to challenge the tasks they've failed in the past, therefore, denying themselves success.


While the article emphasis was on children identified as Learning Disabled, the information can apply to any child. All children face the risk of losing confidence and self-esteem in an environment of failure and criticisms. The next logical question is how we can help this population of children. For that I want to briefly discuss Maslow’s Theory of the Hierarchy of needs.


Maslow Theory of Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943 Abraham Maslow first introduced his theory that people are motivated by a series if needs. These needs are usually represented by a pyramid such as:







The most basic needs are for absolute necessities for life (food, air, shelter, etc.). According to Maslow when a person’s basic needs are met, then he/she can move to the next step, which is safety needs. If a person needs are not met then that person gets “stuck” on a level. That person becomes fixated on having these needs satisfied, and cannot move on. 

It is my belief that learned helpless children are stuck at the second level. Their need to feel safe is overwhelming and inhibiting their natural curiosity (and perhaps their intrinsic motivation to learn). As teachers we must first create an environment that satisfies the needs of our students before we can expect them to participate in any learning activity. It is also my belief that as we create a safe environment, we are setting the stage for the third level, belonging.


Setting Up a Safe Environment



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As the teacher it is your responsibility to create an environment that nurtures each student.  First, place students’ desk in an arrangement that allows space for some “wiggle room”.  (I know this is not always possible).  If you are able, put up posters that have to do with respecting others.  It helps if the posters are age-appropriate for your students.  Second, on the first day explain to your students that you have expectations of yourself and them.  One expectation is that the classroom will be violence free.  Make it explicit that this includes verbal and emotional violence.  Next allow the students to come up with the classroom rules.  Guide them to include rules about respecting everyone, as well as the “usual” rules.  By allowing the students to make up the rules, they now “own” the rules.