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Learned helplessness and self esteem

May 21, 2014

 “I can’t do it.”

“I’m dumb, I’ll never be able to read.”

“I can’t be bothered, it’s too hard.”

“It’s too easy, I’m bored.”

Have you ever heard your child or student say something like this ? Everyone talks or thinks like this sometimes but if it happens a lot , it’s a real problem. It’s called learned helplessness.

What is learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness occurs when a student gives up trying as a result of consistent failure. It is a common response from students who feel helpless or unable to cope with learning expectations.

 How it manifests and affects self-esteem

It’s easy to understand how students can learn this perception of helplessness: after trying many times to master a skill and failing, they feel like failure is inescapable. Self-esteem plummets.

It’s an attitude that manifests in different ways :

  • Negative self-talk when it comes to learning or reading
  • An assumption that they will never improve at certain skills—i.e. lacking a ‘growth mindset’
  • Displaying a negative view of changeable circumstances

Learned helplessness is damaging

If you don’t believe you can do something, you won’t bother trying; or maybe you will just make a half-hearted effort with the expectation of failure. This negative trait will affect everything in your life: academic performance, relationships, job performance and satisfaction. It’s also a common trait in the clinically depressed. Studies of the clinically depressed show that when they fail, they often just give up; rather than looking for external factors that could have contributed to the failure, depressed people usually blame themselves.

It’s not that learned helplessness equals depression; but certainly a person with that mindset would find depression—which afflicts a large section of the population—much harder to deal with. On the other hand, academic success is linked to positive thinking.

What can be done about learned helplessness?

While helplessness is learned, it can be un-learned. Here are some ideas about how to help your child or student:

  • Don’t use negative labels. Being called “slow,” “stupid,” “lazy,” or “dumb” is devastating for a learner. These sorts of words imply that their failure in one area means they are a failure as a person. This is completely untrue and can do permanent damage.
  • Break larger goals into smaller sub-goals. When you are able to succeed at easy tasks, hard tasks feel more possible to accomplish. If your learner finds maths as a whole overwhelming, focus on a sub-goal such as fractions or percentages. Work on smaller, more achievable goals.
  • Be specific in your praise. Provide commendation that is specific and encourage a growth mindset when you praise. Rather than just saying, “Good on you!”, say “I like the way you kept working on that until you got it right!”
  • Remind them of your support. If you’re a parent, teacher or clinician, don’t forget to continually remind your student that you are their support hotline. Encourage them to ask constructive questions.
  • Have high, but realistic, expectations. Lowered expectations have a negative impact on how well children learn—and even how willing they are to try something. Set the bar realistically high to motivate them.
  • Don’t overprotect. Protect them from fear of failure, not failure itself. Experiencing failure and developing a positive attitude in the face of it is essential to developing a resilient personality. Otherwise, “Instead of learning that they can survive pain and disappointment, and even learn from it,” says the book Positive Discipline for Teenagers, “[such] children grow up extremely self-centered, convinced that the world and their parents owe them something.”
  • Give choices where possible.  This study showed that when people in various care facilities are given responsibilities and choices, they remain healthy and active. So by giving your child or student some choice in their learning—such as where they sit, what they get to eat during a break, or the choice of what TV they can watch as a reward—you increase their feeling of investment and engagement.
  • Encourage physical exercise.  Exercise has all kinds of mental benefits, including boosting motivation.

Don’t give up on learned helplessness

Don’t give up if it takes a while for these traits to diminish. As your child or student experiences the joy that comes from a growth mindset, they’ll flourish. However, changing ingrained thought patterns takes time; be patient. If you need help, don’t be afraid to seek professional advice. At Sonic Learning, we have over a decade of experience assisting children and students to overcome learning difficulties—don’t hesitate to contact our health professionals for a free consultation.

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