Recognizing Academic Learned Helplessness in the Classroom

by Jennifer Dobson

Posted on Tuesday 12th of July 2011

As an educator, you are hands-on with your students every day. You know how important it is to have a "can do" attitude in order to achieve your goals. But do you know how to recognize the traits of a child that has academic learned helplessness? Failing to believe that they can succeed and achieve great heights academically can foster learned academic helplessness in your students that can spill over to a decline in overall academic performance. Identifying students who may be falling into the cycle of feeling helpless when it comes to what they can achieve in their educational careers is important and is the first step in getting the student the help that they need to turn their situation around.

Traits to Watch For

Children who are experiencing academic learned helplessness will exhibit common traits. Be advised, however, that students who occasionally experience these traits are not necessarily in trouble. Persistent exhibition of the following can indicate a problem:

· Gives up trying when faced with failure.

· Reflects on failure without investing any time to overcome their shortcomings.

· Fails to recognize success, or sees success as a random event, not a predictor of the future.

· Believes that their failures predict their future performance.

· Looks at failures as overwhelming defeats that they cannot surmount.

· Believe that other students are more able than they are.

· Does not see currents successes as events that can be replicated.

· Is less persistent than their peers.

· Considers their failures to be due to their inability to perform.

· Attributes success in general to being controlled by factors that they cannot control.

· Has a low estimation of their success.

The sad fact is that children who are either poor readers or are otherwise learned helpless will actually strive to avoid failure as opposed to seeking out success. Take a look at the students in your classroom. Most likely you have some academic learned helplessness issues. You probably see some students who work extremely hard to avoid failing, but don't put in any effort or extra effort in order to become a success. Many teachers are "achievers" - which may make this concept hard to "wrap your mind around". Research shows, however, that these behaviors are predictive of future success, or (more accurately) future expectation of success. Students who tend to work hard in order to avoid failing, but will not work hard to be successful develop a learned behavior and view themselves as lacking the potential to succeed.

What You Can Do

As a teacher, if you suspect that a student is inhibited by learned helplessness, you can intervene. Consult with the academic counselor at your school and report your concerns. There is psychological support out there for children with this learned mindset, and getting help right away is important. But don't believe that you can turn the student's situation around on your own. Overcoming this attitude will take work from the student, the student's family and other people who have interaction with the child regularly. Children are not born with the attitude that they don't have the ability to succeed; it's learned, beginning in the child's own family circumstances and then played out on a bigger scale in a school setting. Altering the child's perception of himself or herself involves an intertwining of resources and lots of elbow grease from people who are concerned and have the child's best interests at heart.

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