37 Helplessness

Learned Helplessness In Our Students And Learning How We HELP!


By Amy Baker (ABake028)



1. Learning Targets

2. What is learned helplessness?

3. How does this affect my students?

4. How can I teach these students?

5. Conclusion

6. Multiple Choice Questions

7. References



Learning Targets


Students should be able to…

1. Understand what learned helplessness means for students

2. Understand the traits related to learned helplessness

3. Implement some strategies to help with learned helplessness in the classroom




What Is Learned Helplessness?

The bell rang and students began pouring into the classroom, slowly they put away their backpacks and began trickling to their desks amongst all the chatter. Now that they were all seated, we were ready for our morning brain warm ups! Math worksheets were handed out and a sea of whining filled the classroom. “I can’t do this,” “These are all hard problems,” “I give up,” “How do you do these? I don’t know how!”

Before students even have a chance to see what they were working on they feel defeated. This is known as learned helplessness or a psychological condition in which a student “has learned to act or behave helpless in a particular situation, even when they have the power to change their unpleasant or even harmful circumstance” (Seligman, 1975).


“Students who are repeatedly exposed to school failure are particularly at risk for the development of learned helplessness” (Sutherland and Singh, 2004, pg. 172).


Learned helplessness “exists when individuals believe that their own behavior has no influence on consequent events” (Seligman, 1975). Seligman believes this phenomenon is comprised of three different parts “(a) an undermining of one’s motivation to respond; (b) a retardation of one’s ability to learn that responding works; and (c) an emotional disturbance, usually depression or anxiety.”

For students this becomes a vicous cycle since one component can directly affect another and rapidly create a snowball pattern. Typically students are depressed about past failures and “begin to doubt their intellectual abilities, and this leads them to doubt that they can do anything to help overcome their difficulties. They then lessen their achievement efforts, particularly when faced with difficult material, and this leads in turn to continued failure” (Sutherland and Singh, 2004, pg. 172). Obviously, students who are wrapped up in this snowball effect get the overwhelming feeling that they will never get problems correct. This becomes a difficult task for students to overcome.


10 Ways to see if your student exhibits learned helplessness behaviors!

Does your student….

1. Prefer to do easy problems rather than hard ones?

2. Takes little independent initiative?

3. Fail one part of a task and is certain to fail at the entire task?

4. Make negative or degrading comments about his/her ability when s/he performs poorly?

5. Give up when you correct them?

6. Stop trying when s/he encounters an obstacle in school work?

7. Asks for help from aides, other students more than necessary?

8. Fail a few problems, and continues to do poorly even though the problems are within his/her ability range?

9. Not respond with enthusiasm and pride when asked how s/he is doing on an academic task?

10. Attribute their good grade to luck, problems being easy or you were being nice?

Student Behavior Checklist (Fincham et al. 1989)






















How does learned helplessness affect my students?

When students are feeling as though they cannot “control” their failure, they do show some symptoms. The most common signs of learned helplessness are those of “shared depression symptoms such as passivity, interjected hostility, weight loss, appetite loss, and social deficits. In addition to these familiar signs, learned helplessness also has some diagnostic symptoms including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation” (Wikipedia, 2008). This is a lot for a child to have to deal with in addition to learning the information being presented.

These depression like symptoms affect students in their educational learning. Fincham, Hokoda, Sanders asserts that if a child finds new material particularly difficult he/she falls into a defensive pattern, learned helplessness, which increases obstacles in learning (1989, pg. 138).

This psychological condition can greatly affect academics because of the snowball effect. Academic failures of the past lead to flawed deductive reasoning in children, the conclusion of which is that failure is the norm. This vicious cycle of failure, doubt and failure again can manifest in both academic achievement and social development. Thus learned helplessness is not only an additional learning barrier but also a comforting internal excuse (Wikipedia, 2008).

Once behind in academic skills, students feel hopeless and lose interest in even trying. Since we know this condition can cripple our students’ education, how do we prevent this from entering our classrooms?


Do You Promote Learned Helplessness? Take This Quiz!


How can I teach these students?

What we do know is that students with learned helplessness exhibit symptoms similar to depression. As teachers we do have tricks up our sleeves to help eliminate learned helplessness behaviors in our classrooms. Sutherland and Singh believe “academic failure may result in students’ receiving little positive reinforcement” ( 2004, pg.169). The first thing we can attempt with these students is forms of positive reinforcement. When good performance is achieved; perhaps positive verbal feedback, tokens, stickers or some type of reward for a job well done; anything that will give these students a pat on the back and make them feel worthy.

This, over time, will hopefully build the students’ confidence and begin to break down those depressive behaviors. Additionally, studies have shown that the teacher-student dynamic is contributing to the development and maintenance of learned helplessness. It is not that teachers actively reinforce learned helplessness behaviors but rather because of student disposition, positive reinforcement occurs so seldom between teachers and students that students are unfamiliar with the positive reinforcement dynamic (Sutherland and Singh, 2004, pg. 171).

For this method to be effective it needs to occur over time and it needs to be consistent so the student learns the connection between the performance and the praise. In addition to the positive praise we give students, we also need to be aware of the type of critical response we give. Criticisms directed towards students like “I’m very disappointed in you” are often received as personal attacks and further reinforce the underlying depressive emotions of learned helplessness that are represented as “I’m no good, I’m a failure.” However, process criticism like “Maybe you can think of another way to do it?” leads to a healthier academic attitude. This paradigm is mirrored in the person versus process praise dynamic as well. Person praise such as “I’m very proud of you” leads to student centered outcomes such as “I’m a success, I’m a failure;” whereas process praise like “You must have tried really hard” leades to challenge centered outcomes such as “I can do this” (Sutherland and Singh, 2004, pg. 175).

As teachers we have to be conscious to make our criticisms and praise about the process of the problem not the person so that the failure can be attributed to the actual work not an intelligence factor. Since we know positive reinforcement is helpful over time it is necessary to make process praise a part of our everyday curriculum.

But how can we aide these students with academic performance? Tests of course!! Research shows that with learned helplessness “students who had hard questions before the easy questions would tend to give up on the easy questions due to frustration…the perceived failure alone was sufficient to make students feel helpless and give up on the test” (Firman et al., 2004, pg. 692). What does this mean for us?

To avoid this test anxiety we can alter our tests so that all students can feel successful while taking them. “For decades, teachers and test developers have been advised to arrange the test items in the ascending order of difficulty so that the test takers would be motivated by the early successful experience and continue the test” (Firman et al., 2004, pg. 692). This method will hopefully motivate your students and build confidence so that over time (and throughout the test) they may begin attributing their success in the beginning questions with intellectual ability rather than external occurrences.


In today’s society, our students have additional pressure for high academic performance from their parents, school systems, and state tests. This additional anxiety often leads to learned helplessness behaviors that we see in the classroom more and more. Although these behaviors are difficult to handle in our classroom management, it is our duty to try different methods to combat this condition.

Evidence shows that “teachers provide less academic instruction to students who exhibit problem behavior” (Sutherland and Singh, 2004, pg. 169). We need to make conscious efforts to give special attention to these students so that they may succeed in their academic career.

In addition to the one on one time, we have to remember to stay positive and model positive behavior in our classroom. For these students a “lack of positive reinforcement leads to a lack of confidence, a developmental increase in the need for external approval, a perception that one has little control over outcomes in one’s life, and ultimately a decrease in motivation” (Sutherland and Singh, 2004, pg. 173). This is often a difficult task to accomplish all year long, but keep it simple: praise, praise, praise on procedure and model the positive behaviors in your classroom.

Multiple Choice Questions

1. Students with learned helplessness believe

A. Once they have help they can succeed

B. Other students can learn to help them

C. Teachers are great and always teach great lessons

D. They will continue to fail on future problems

2. Students with learned helplessness may exhibit all of the following EXCEPT:

A. Ask their peers for help

B. Give up when you correct them

C. Prefer easy questions over hard

D. Sit quietly and not respond

3. Telling a student “I really like that you showed your long division work” is an example of

A. Person criticism

B. Person praise

C. Process criticism

D. Process praise

4. To best create a test to avoid learned helplessness behaviors teachers can

A. Create special tests for these students

B. Place factual questions before conceptual questions

C. Read the test out loud

D. Use all multiple choice questions


1. (D) 2. (D) 3. (D) 4. (B)


Fincham, F.D., Hokoda, A., & Sanders, R.J. (1989). Learned Helplessness, Test Anxiety, and Academic Achievement: A Longitudinal Analysis. Child Development, 60, 138-145.

Firman, M., Hwang, C., Copella, M., & Clark, S. (2004). Learned Helplessness: The Effect of Failure on Test-Taking. Education, 124(4), 688-693.

Learned Helplessness. Retrieved September 16, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness.html

Moorman, C. The Language of Learned Helplessness Quiz. Skill Training and Resources for Parents and Educators. Retrieved September 16, 2008, from http://www.chickmoorman.com/PAhelplessness.html

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 Discorders, 29(2), 169-181.


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