The Dragonfly Forest

They have been given names such as devil’s darning needle, ear sewer, horse stinger, skeeter hawk, and the snake’s servant. Actually, Dragonflies are beneficial, peaceful, and stunning. You are a Dragonfly if you are: ADD/ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic, Asperger’s, NLVD, autistic…

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The importance of changing Learned Helplessness in students with disabilities

RE-SHARING!!!  This is so important to understand please pass-along to anyone who works with kids!

Why do some students with learning disabilities (LD) succeed while others appear unmotivated, fail, or drop out?  The answer is quite simple.  The LD students who are more successful have grit – tenacity.  The LD students who are not achieving academic success have developed learned helplessness.  Students do not develop learned helplessness because teachers and/or parents coddle the students, do things for them, or make things too easy.  Learned helplessness is a condition in which the student has come to believe that he/she is helpless in a situation and events are out of his/her control. Learned helplessness is so damaging to a student and is the reason many quit rather than try harder, procrastinate, and even experience emotional problems. As an Educational Coach, Therapist, and Psycho-educational Diagnostician I will enlighten you on learned helplessness and changes that need to be made to help all LD students. 


Decades ago, a psychologist, Martin Seligman, performed some experiments on dogs. Here’s the abridged version.  The researchers put dogs into different situations where they were placed in cages (shutter boxes).  Some dogs were placed in a cage where they received an electric shock but were able to end the shock by pressing a lever, while other dogs were placed in a cage where they experienced random shocks but had NO ability to make the shock stop or escape.  The dogs who had some control over their negative experiences recovered quickly but the dogs who could not escape or stop the pain learned to be helpless, gave up, and displayed clinical depressive symptoms.   Later the dogs were placed 
in another box and only needed to jump over to the other side to escape the pain.  The dogs who learned they could control their environment jumped over the small barrier quickly.  The dogs who had no control over their situation continued to display helpless behaviors and instead of escaping the situation they just laid down and whined; they didn’t even try.   Would we call these dogs lazy, unmotivated, or coddled?  No, we would not, the dogs had learned to be helpless.  No matter what, they could not change their environment or situation even if they had a desire to change– they were stuck. 


More research has occurred over the past decades focused on learned helplessness and we have discovered that it happens in humans as well.   We are now able to understand why kidnap victims do not seize the opportunity to escape or why a battered spouse stays in an abusive relationship.  We also now understand why some students with LD give up.  

When students attend school, they are stuck.  The law says that a student MUST be in school and unless you are homeschooled you cannot just leave when you are feeling scared, vulnerable, stupid, or sometimes even sick.   Classroom management techniques are designed to assure that the teacher has all the power so students are controlled.  Granted, these classroom management techniques are often necessary but think about how similar they are to the cage the dogs were stuck in – quite similar in fact but with windows and more people.  

Now, some of these students will experience a great deal of negative pain while in these classrooms because they have LD.  They will watch other students grasp concepts and ideas quicker and with ease while they struggle.  These students with LD will also watch teachers praise and give positive attention to students who are being academically successful but they themselves cannot seem to achieve this academic success no matter how hard they try.  Often despite trying exceptionally hard, teachers send clear messages to these students that they are perceived as lazy, unmotivated, not working hard enough, not working up to their potential…  Wow, more shocking pain that they cannot escape and these LD students experience intense shame (Shaming needs to stop post).   

Students with LD often have the intellectual capabilities to be academically successful but have a false perception that they lack these abilities and have learned that trying hard or putting in effort has no positive effect.  Remember, a student’s perception is his/her reality.  So, even if they are gifted and LD they may still experience learned helplessness.  Learned helplessness undermines the student’s motivation to learn, reduces the student’s ability to learn, establishes ineffective learning strategies, and deteriorates school performance.

Over time these students with LD end up just giving up and accepting their fate that they are stupid, will never learn, or will always fail anyway so why try.  This is why there is a high dropout rate by the way!  And let’s not forget that with these feelings of learned helplessness are other problems such as anxiety, depression, stress, suicide…   Which is why I work hard to help teachers understand that students should never be labeled as a student with a behavior problem or lazy – the behaviors are a symptom of a deeper issue and behaviors often stems from learned helplessness and shame. 


Studies have provided evidence that the teacher-student dynamic is a major factor that contributes to the development and maintenance of learned helplessness.   This is not because teachers intend to create this environment for students but because when the student struggles and displays learned helplessness behaviors, positive reinforcements and support seldom occur.   An LD student experiencing learned helplessness will not be motivated to do better by receiving bad grades which often is frustrating for the teacher who in turn give up on trying to even help the student.  Let’s face it, teaching students who are motivated is much easier than teaching students who struggle and display self-defeating behaviors.

Ways the system needs to change:
Teach and embrace differences.  Many schools have been willing to focus on cultural and racial diversities yet few focus on learning diversities as a whole.  Some teachers are educating their students in their own classrooms about learning differences and the importance of accepting how everyone learns but this is hardly done at a district level.  School districts are focused on Academic Excellence- praising and rewarding students and teachers who are high achievers.  Yes, we want students to be achieving but school districts are “doing it wrong.”  Success in school should not be defined in regards to high scores but instead, success should be defined as progress and improvement.  Improving the academic knowledge and self-esteem of students should be the focus of all education.  School districts also need to eliminate the shaming – discussed here: Stop the shaming post.        
School districts need to stop being afraid of the numbers (amount of students in special education) and just do what is right for all students!  I’m frequently in school meetings where I hear principals, school psychologists, or special education directors tell parents that their child doesn’t qualify for services.  This is often because the student “fits in the box” of average and therefore does not need the extra support services, accommodations, or intervention programs the parents (and myself since I diagnosed the student with a disability) believe are necessary.  We are not wanting arbitrary services and supports.  We see the struggles the child is dealing with.  We are standing outside the cage watching the child disintegrating from the pain and are trying to prevent learned helplessness.  It can be extremely frustrating watching the school district continue to press the shock button over and over and refusing to help stop the pain.  By the way, I have never met a parent who has asked the school for help when the child did not need the help but I have experienced many school district refuse to provide help when it is explicitly clear what needs to be done. 
Teachers need to stop using red ink all over the papers!   When teachers focus on errors, they are teaching students that failing is wrong/bad and that it isn’t okay to make mistakes.  In reality we really do learn more from the mistakes we make than the things we get right so we need to help students embrace errors.  The score at the top of the paper should be the number the student received correct.  The answers the students got wrong should be identified and the students should be taught how to go back over their mistakes, relearn (or be retaught) the material, and correct the mistakes. This technique should be taught as early as kindergarten and continue until the student graduates cause the goal is for students to learn, isn’t it?   Some students will need to be re-taught the material they missed in a different way because what the errors (poor grades) tells us is the student has failed to learn the information.   Sometimes teachers have gotten into the habit of thinking that the F means that the student has failed to study, or the student failed to listen, or the student has failed to apply him/herself, or the parents failed to do their part… 
This leads me to the next important thing that needs changed - blame.  To learn everyone needs to participate, the students, parents, and most importantly the teachers.  The teachers are the leaders here and if a student is not progressing and improving in their learning most of this responsibility needs to fall on the teachers shoulders.  I have heard many teachers place blame on the students and/or parents.  When a student struggles with learned helplessness the teacher needs to add specific strategies to help guide the student out of their perceived electric cage.  Most students with learned helplessness require a teacher to be explicit in their instructions and take time to meet with the student one-on-one to provide assistance.  Remember, an LD student hears comments such as “Your written response is sloppy and poorly written” as criticism (an electric shock) so focus on positive constructive comments such as “Let’s think of another way to answer this problem.”  This demonstrates that you, as the teacher, really do care and are willing to help alleviate the pain.  This does not mean that you as the teacher are doing the work.  You are guiding the student on how to do the work, rewarding them for their effort, and providing the student an opportunity to feel success. 
Remember that students with learned helplessness have learned to just give up so they may be resistant to help.  Think of them as a traumatized dog that just left the cage and the shocks were conditioned with human contact – the dogs will then avoid humans.  So when interacting with these students focus on the things the student does well and avoid focusing on what they are doing wrong or it will only make them more resistant and have increased avoidance.  I coach many LD students with learned helplessness and know that they do not want to have failing grades, they don’t want to feel stupid.  These students really just want the pain to stop but have no idea how.  Parents often try to help but they often have to spend their evenings trying to glue pieces of their child’s shattered self-esteem back together (these students frequently come home and let out all their anxiety, fears, and frustrations).  Teachers can help alleviate this pain.  One of the common themes in LD students with grit, is they had at least one teacher/mentor who believed in them so they in turn started to believe in themselves.  They had teachers/mentors who never gave up on them even when the times got tough and helped teach them that failing doesn’t make them a failure.  We all need people in our lives to help instill motivation, especially these students with learned helplessness.

Finally, we need to change the structure of our educational system to include instructions on developing grit and tenacity.  To be straight forward here – schools should focus less on developing new curriculums like the “Common Core” and put more energy into developing programs to teach grit, tenacity, and perseverance.  To learn more about this read, Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21stCentury.  

Just think of how much better a school district would be if they could actually educate students to be successful in the world by having a positive self-esteem and grit.  I hypnotize that our prison population would decrease and we would have more productive high achieving citizens. 

Here is an activity that is similar to the one I do when teaching college classes and for professional development workshops for schools it's only a few minutes long and is a great example of how easy it is to develop learned helplessness. (if the video doesn't appear below click the link to get to the video)

(Image below: picture of an adult female sitting with her arm around a young male who is looking at a book and has a distressed look on his face.  A quote from Sutherland & Singh's book 'Learned Helplessness and Students with Emotional or Behavioral Disorders: Deprivation in the Classroom-' "Students who are repeatedly exposed to school failure are particularly at risk for the development of learned helplessness." Then my explanation of learned helplessness from the research - "How to know if a student is experiencing learned helplessness: *Takes little independent initiative * Prefers easy problems & avoids hard problems * Makes negative or degrading comments about own ability *If fails one part of a task is certain to fail entire task *Gives up easily *Stops trying or avoids difficult academic work *Does not respond with pride when talking about academics *Does poorly despite having ability)

References if you need them:

Schunk, D. H. (1984). Sequential attributional feedback and children's achievement behaviors. Journal of Educational Psychology 76(6), 1159–1169.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W.H.Freeman.
Sutherland, K.S., & Singh, N.N. (2004). Learned Helplessness and Students with Emotional or Behavioral Disorders: Deprivation in the Classroom. Behavioral Disorders, 29(2), 169-181.
Tollefson, N. (2000). Classroom applications of cognitive theories of motivation. Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 63-83.


  1. In the face with a ton of bricks. Thank you so much for bringing this to light.