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When Children Fail in School Part Two: Teaching Strategies for Learned Helpless Students
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When Children Fail in School Part Two: Teaching Strategies for Learned Helpless Students

Learned helplessness is a dysfunctional condition that keeps students’ self-confidence extremely low and perpetuates their perception that they are not able to cope successfully with academic demands and school challenges.  Sutherland and Singh (2004) state that learned helplessness contributes to the school failure that many students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders experience. The authors add that, the kind of school failure experienced by children with a learning disability –over long periods and across a variety of tasks, settings, and teachers- puts LD students at risk of developing learned helplessness.


  According to Burhans and Dweck (1995), children prone to helpless behavior patterns in the classroom are more likely to avoid the possibility of academic failure than to increase their effort in achieving academic success. Without a healthy self-confidence, learned helpless students give up academically, because they do not expect to be successful in school and they anticipate failure in everything they try or do. Because students prone to a learned helpless response pattern do not think strategically and they avoid risk taking behaviors, rather than overcoming learned helplessness, this perception of academic failure gets worse in older students. Learned helpless students often put themselves down and ignore or minimize praise and compliment from others, in particular from teachers, so, school staff and parents must intervene skillfully to help these children overcome a learned helpless response pattern. Some guidelines follow, but first, I introduce some important concepts.



 Key Concepts

      It is important that teachers and parents understand that low self-confidence and learned helplessness do not necessarily relate to a lack of ability. Students with average ability and academic skills can evidence low self-confidence and/or learned helplessness. Self-confidence and learned helplessness are both perceptions, and these perceptions can be accurate (the child lacks academic skills) or inaccurate (the child has adequate skills and average ability). However, for the student, perception is reality; learned helpless students firmly believe that their lack of ability causes their school difficulties. In addition, learned helpless children believe that their own behavior (i.e. trying hard and making an effort) has no positive effect on consequent events, which not only undermines the child’s motivation to learn, but also reduces his or her ability to learn, and deteriorates school performance (Seligman, 1995). Ames (1990) describes learned helpless children as students that typically exhibit low expectations, negative affect (negative beliefs and feelings), and ineffective learning strategies.  For this reason, we need to deal with learned helplessness at the attributions or motivation level, the feelings level, and the academic or strategic level, which may require active involvement and coordinated effort from teachers, parents, and in more extreme cases, school counselors and/or school psychologists.




      To understand better the learned helpless child, attribution style (Weiner, 1979) is a key concept. Attribution is the process of drawing inferences about the cause of a given outcome. For example, when we ask students to explain the reason for their success or failure on an academic task, the most common causes cited are ability, effort, task difficulty, or just plain luck. Ability and effort are internal attributions (inside the individual); task difficulty and luck are external attributions (outside the individual). Ability and task difficulty are stable or fixed attributions (do not change); effort and luck are unstable or variable attributions (change). In summary, we can classify attributions as internal-external and fixed-variable. Two other dimensions that we need to consider are global attribution (believing that the cause of a negative event is consistent across different contexts) versus specific attribution, or believing that the cause of the negative event is unique to a particular time or a particular setting.  In addition, Weiner and others classified attributions along three causal dimensions: locus of control, stability, and controllability. Locus of control includes two poles: internal and external. Stability refers to whether causes change over time or not. Finally, controllability contrasts the causes that one can control (i.e. child’s skills or the child using learning strategies) from those causes that the child cannot control, like luck. Attribution style explains both low motivation and learned helplessness based on the reasons to which children attribute their successes or failure in academic tasks. According to this theory, students feel less motivated to achieve in school when they believe both (a) that ability is permanent and cannot be changed, and, (b) due to low ability, they have little or no control over their successes.  Attributions theory, in particular the concept of attribution style, remains one of the most popular theories to understand the difference in motivation and effort between high-achieving and low-achieving students.

Ames (1990) defines learned helplessness as a dysfunctional attributions pattern characterized by both passivity and loss of motivation in responding to academic tasks, in particular, those tasks that the learned helpless child perceives as challenging, or that require effort and persistence from the student. As we said earlier, learned helpless students believe that ability is fixed and all that they see is their own personal deficiencies and inadequacies.


  Low achieving and/or learned helpless students do not see the connection between their own effort and achieving in school, believing that school failure simply reflects their low ability (an internal and stable attribution), and that they lack the skills and/or ability they need to be able to reverse school failure. These students exhibit a helpless motivation pattern, taking little or no responsibility for their own successes (However, they take all the blame when they fail), and underestimating their performance when they do well on a task. For example, if the child performs well on a test, is because of good luck or because the test was too easy, both external attributions that are outside the child’s control. Learned helpless students hold a self-perpetuating set of negative beliefs and attitudes that depresses their engagement and persistence in academic tasks, which makes learned helplessness primarily a motivation problem.




To help children overcome this helpless response pattern, first, we need to intervene at the perceptions (beliefs and attitudes) and motivation levels. On the next section, I present some guidelines in using attributions theory and attributions retraining to help children overcome a learned helpless response style.


Motivation Strategies

  • Challenge the student’s belief that ability is fixed, helping the child understand that ability is incremental, that is, with focused practice and enough time, we can increase our skill or ability in doing a task. Help the child focus on the task rather than on her abilities.
  • Define success as improvement, or developing knowledge and skills that the student did not have before. Avoid defining academic success as performing at a pre-established level (i.e. grades) or in comparison with other students (Tollefson, 2000).
  • Help the student shift from focusing on the performance aspects of the task (normative comparisons) to concentrating on the task itself.
  • Challenge the student’s belief that spending high levels of effort in a task or a skill is the same as having low ability (Tollefson, 2000). Sports analogies are excellent to help children understand that all high-level skills require a high amount of effort.
  • Link effort with performance, telling the child that he is improving his skills because he works hard.
  • Make sure the child clearly sees the connection between her own effort and school success. Children who perceive this connection are more likely to respond to difficult tasks and/or failure with less frustration and with positive expectations about the outcome of the event (Ames, 1990).
  • In schools, attributions retraining focus in teaching students that effort rather than ability determines success in school. Most specifically, attributions retraining teach children to attribute success to effort, and failure to inadequate effort. For example, we tell the child that he was trying hard when he succeeded and he needed to try harder when he failed. Students trained in attributing success and failure to the amount of effort they spent, perseverate more on academic tasks than students that believe that success and failure are due to innate ability. Most importantly, students that attribute failure to lack of effort see their future school performance as something that they can control.
  • Make sure that you define effort correctly, telling the student that effort is spending effective and strategic time on the learning task. Just trying harder or spending time doing random activities that are not working is not effective effort; effective and strategic effort focuses on learning strategies and procedures, that is, trying hard in a particular way is what leads to success. When the strategy or procedure that the child is using is not working, we tell her to use a different strategy or procedure. Teaching students to make strategic effort attributions help them see failure and academic difficulties as problem solving situations in which the search for a better strategy becomes their focus (Weiner, 1980). When we train learned helpless students in using strategic effort attributions, we can weaken the child’s perception that her lack of ability is the problem, helping her understand that the problem lies in using an ineffective strategy or procedure. She simply needs to find a better strategy to solve that particular problem.
  • Teach the student to see academic errors and mistakes as her cue to change the learning strategy that she is using.
  • Model to the student how to manage failure and setbacks in a constructive and strategic way, for example, you can say, “This is not working. What is another way that I can do this?” Alternatively, you can say, “What is another strategy that I can try?”
  • When you praise the student, tell him what he did well on the past, like, “You’ve been working hard,” avoiding focusing on the future, for example, “You need to try harder.” When we tell children that they need to work harder, they may think that they are not doing well or that the task will be difficult.
  • Avoid praising the student for doing easy tasks, for example, praising a fifth grader because she completed ten one-digit addition facts. Instead, praise the child for her willingness to engage in academic tasks and her persistence.
  • Your praise should be specific, not global (e.g., “Good job”), explicitly telling the child the particular skill or behavior that you are praising.
  • Replace personal messages or comments addressed to the child’s character (e.g., “What’s wrong with you? You never listen”) with comments and/or feedback that are behavior-specific, for example, “Try problem number seven again. Remember to carry the one.” Comments addressed to the child’s character are permanent (do not change), leading children to make fixed and negative attributions about their skills and abilities to handle academic tasks. Behavior-specific feedback describes actions or behavior that the student can improve, teaching children to address problems and academic challenges using positive and changeable attributions.
  • Focus on feedback that tells the student how to do the task (strategies), avoiding commenting on the child’s character and/or ability to do the task, for example, “You get discouraged easily (internal, fixed, and global attribution); you can do this.”
  • Use feedback that is constructive and task oriented. Focus your feedback on procedure and alternative strategies, for example, “Maybe you can think of another way of doing this,” or “Let’s try something different.” Avoid vague and/or negative feedback (e.g., “Your essay is sloppily written”); making sure that your feedback gives the child specific information about how to fix errors and mistakes (e.g., “Your essay was missing…”).
  • Use attributions retraining to build self-confidence. Teach the child to attribute failure to external, unstable, and specific causes, and to attribute success to internal, stable, and global causes. With attributions retraining, children learn to use external attributions to explain failure, attributing failure to situational or environmental conditions, rather than blaming themselves (Weiner, 1979). For example, failure is the result of having bad luck with a tricky test or because the day of the test the room was too cold and they had difficulty concentrating, in other words, failure was not their fault. When we manipulate children’s attributions, we make sure that failure does not affect their self-confidence, but success helps in building pride and self-confidence.
  • In summary, from the attributions perspective, to help children overcome a learned helpless response style, the key lies in convincing students that their academic performance is due primarily to factors that they can control and they can improve.
  • Manipulating attributions alone will not improve self-confidence if the child keeps failing academically. For this reason, in combination with attributions retraining, we need to teach alternative learning strategies (compensatory strategies, plans, and procedures) to give the learned helpless student specific ways to remediate skill deficits.
  • Teach the student to regulate his own motivation actively and purposively using motivation regulation strategies (Wolters, 2003). First, explain to the child that all students at one time or another experience motivation setbacks and obstacles, for example, they feel bored with a particular task or they get distracted from the task. Students can control and manipulate their motivation to increase both intensity of effort and engagement with the task. Some motivation regulation strategies that Wolters recommend are:

Self-consequating or using self-administered consequences for their own behavior. This strategy involves the identification and administration of extrinsic rewards (e.g. a snack or playing a video game after completing the task) for reaching a particular goal associated with completing the task. For example, the child says, “After I finish my essay, I will take a 15 minutes break to eat my snack.” Alternatively, to influence own motivation, the student may rely in denying himself the self-selected reward, for example, “If I don’t finish my essay, I cannot play my video game for three days in a row.”




  In addition to using tangible rewards, the child can use self-talking or self-praising, that is, making encouraging and positive verbal statements, for example, “Good, I finish another problem. Nice job. Each day I get better at doing this.”



 Using goal-oriented self-talking, that is, stating the reasons she has for persisting in completing the task. For example, when tempted to quit, the child thinks of wanting to improve her grades (a performance goal), or she may think about wanting to satisfy her curiosity, feeling competent, feeling smart, or feeling more independent (mastery goals).



  To enhance interest on the task, the child can modify the way he is doing the task so that the process feels less repetitive and boring. For example, the child can switch from cursive writing to script, or he can turn the task into a game. I know of one child that, to persist in completing long division problems rewards himself five tokens for accurate answers higher that ten thousands, and three tokens for answers below ten thousands. Children are imaginative and creative, so, they are not going to face much difficulty in finding alternative and/or game-like ways to handle long and tedious tasks.


  Environmental structuring, that is, modifying the environment to reduce distractions. Simple modifications that can re-energize an apathetic or unfocused child are changing the location, changing seats, facing the desk towards the wall to avoid getting distracted, taking a nap before studying, taking short breaks in-between tasks, eating or drinking a food that will increase the level of energy, and/or listening to music to become more attentive.

  • To shift the student’s locus of control from external (other people or circumstances are in control) to internal (being in control of actions that lead to academic improvement), follow the child’s interests and teach him how to set task-focused self-goals. Help the child develop a short-term goal (the child creates the goal or selects from a menu of goals) with a systematic (step-by-step) plan and learning strategies for making progress towards the goal. For example, the child can work on a goal like, “For the next fifteen minutes, I am going to remain seated and working on my addition problems.” Gradually, progress the child to goals that require more time, for example, “By May 15, I will complete accurately three addition problems with one renaming.”  Once children learn to develop self-goals, and they focus on strategies rather than outcomes or performance, they are more likely to “own” the outcome (Ames, 1990). Make sure that the goal that the child selects is realistic, and that you provide frequent feedback and teach alternative learning strategies to ensure success.



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